By Kristine Cherek • March 04, 2016•Writers in Residence, Careers, Firms and the Private Sector
My sister is many things, but a good cook is not one of them. She is incredibly smart; she holds a Ph.D. in the medical field. By day, she works tirelessly to improve the lives of her patients. By night, she is the most dedicated mom I have ever known. But she is not a good cook. Thankfully for everyone involved, her husband is an artist in the kitchen. One evening when her husband was working late, my sister realized she needed to feed their children SOMETHING for dinner. She rose to the challenge. As my sister was pulling the dish from the oven, her 9-year-old daughter walked into the kitchen and asked, “Where is Dad?” At work. “Then who is going to make dinner?,” the 9-year old wondered aloud, even as she saw the dish in my sister’s hands. “I am,” replied my sister. While the 9-year-old laughed out loud at the prospect of her mom cooking dinner, her 5-year-old sister loudly proclaimed, “GIRLS don’t cook, silly! BOYS cook!”
What does this have to do with the role of women in the profession and in the family? What does any of this have to do with women in the law? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps everything. We can learn a lot from a 5-year-old.
The National Association of Women Lawyers (“NAWL”) recently published its Report of the Ninth Annual NAWL National Survey on Retention and Promotion of Women in Law Firms . NAWL surveyed the 200 largest law firms in the United States to assess the progress of women lawyers. Among the other dismal findings, NAWL found that women comprise just 18% of the equity partners at the nation’s 200 largest law firms. NAWL concluded that, “Firms have made no appreciable progress in the rate at which they are promoting women into the role of equity partner” over the past ten years.
Women have comprised one-half of all law school graduates nationwide for at least the past two decades . Since at least 2006, the 200 largest law firms have recruited and hired women at the entry level associate position in about the same number as men . Given that women are graduating from law schools in equal numbers to men, and women are joining the largest law firms in equal numbers to men, how is it possible that less than one in five equity partners is female? The issue is not one of timing. This is not a problem that will be resolved in some future year once enough time has elapsed for enough women to rise through the associate ranks. With a pipeline of law school graduates over two decades in the making, and with an average partnership track of eight to ten years (according to the research conducted by NAWL), there should have been ample time for law firms to substantially increase the number of women equity partners in their ranks over the past ten years.
What happened? Where did all of those women go?
Much, of course, has been written on this topic. The American Bar Association, NAWL, various state bar associations, and other thought leaders continue to study the progress (or lack thereof) of women in the legal profession. They continue to advocate for programs, initiatives, and changing mindsets that will, we hope, eventually lead to the removal of barriers to the advancement of women in the legal profession. For their part, law firms nationwide are implementing women’s initiatives aimed at improving the retention and promotion of women within their own organizations. With so many brilliant minds already focused on the issue of the barriers to the advancement of women in the legal profession, what could I possibly have to contribute to the discussion?
My purpose here is not to espouse some profound and different theory of why women flee the nation’s largest law firms or what can be done to retain and support them in their careers. As one of those women who fled (I left an AmLaw 100 firm for an in-house position as an 8th year associate), even I cannot tell you why so many women leave or what can be done to improve the retention and promotion of women in any meaningful way. The reasons are too numerous, too complex, and too personal for me to draw conclusions or make generalizations. I can tell you that, for my female colleagues and me, it had at least something to do with who we saw (or, more accurately, who we did not see) when we looked at the composition of the partnership.
We can learn a lot from a 5-year-old. To my then 5-year-old niece, not only was it normal for her father to cook all of the family meals, but it was silly - inconceivable in the adult vernacular - that her mother would attempt to make even a single dinner. In my 5-year-old niece's world view, boys do the cooking while girls do the working. Now imagine if this child grows up to become an attorney at one of the 200 largest law firms in the United States. As she walks the halls, she will notice (consciously or subconsciously) that more than four out of every five partner offices is occupied by a man. Would it be silly for her to think she could rise to the level of partnership? Imagine that girl beginning her legal career with the knowledge of the statistical uphill battle that is the reality for young women attorneys today. Would YOU believe that you will be the one who will be the exception to the rule? Would you believe that you will be one of the 18% who will defy the odds?
You can’t be what you can’t see.
Just as Girls Who Code and other organizations are working to close the gender gap in the technology and engineering fields, we need to do the same in the legal profession. The technology sector has Sheryl Sandberg and other heroines of my 40-something generation. We in the legal profession need to find and identify our heroines. We need to champion their accomplishments. We need to recognize and honor the trailblazers who came before us and those who walk among us. We need to show the next generation of women attorneys that it IS possible for them to reach the senior ranks of law firms and legal departments. We need to inspire and equip the next generation of women attorneys to help them become what they might not yet be able to see. It isn’t the whole solution, obviously. But it is a good start.
In case you are wondering what happened to that ill-fated dinner, even my sister admitted it was awful. They threw it away and ordered a pizza instead. It turns out that, in this situation, the 5-year-old was right all along.
Follow me on Instagram @kcherek and on Twitter @kristinecherek.
 The full report is available at http://www.nawl.org/p/cm/ld/fid=506.
 See the First Annual NAWL National Survey on Retention and Promotion of Women in Law Firms (October 2006), available at http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:kBK3QlK0JTUJ:www.nawl.org/d/do/51+&cd=2&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us&client=safari.