By Nancy Gertner • October 03, 2007•Firms and the Private Sector
In the 1960s, social critics spoke about the "revolution of rising expectations," describing the phenomenon in which succeeding generations of Americans expected to do better than their parents and the conflicts that resulted when they did not.
If the latest issue of Working Mother magazine trumpeting the "50 Best Law Firms for Women" is any indication, we are now in the midst of "the revolution of falling expectations," which will have its own serious consequences.
Working Mother -- in an altogether commendable effort to monitor the progress of women in the largest firms -- ranked them by various measures, including the percentage of women equity partners and non-equity partners, and the number of women in management positions.
Several Boston firms made the grade with the percentage of women equity partners ranging from 10 to 21 percent. Lawyers Weekly noted the results in a "People in the Law" section dubbed "Honors."
While these firms should be lauded for their commitment to women's progress, the "Honors" label has to be put into context. And that context is disheartening, to say the least. Can any firm truly by recognized as "the best" when the percentage of women equity partners is below the Massachusetts average, which is 17 percent women equity partners? (All but three of the listed firms were below that number.)
For years we believed that once law school graduation rates substantially equalized between men and women, the pipeline of women associates would lead to equality in partnerships and managerial ranks. That pipeline has been gushing for decades, but profound disparities between men and women remain.
Twenty years after women began graduating from law schools in equal numbers to men, women still do not comprise close to 50 percent of the partners; attrition threatens even the meager gains attained.
In Boston, with its excellent law schools, the numbers should be even more favorable to women's advancement. By 2008 we would have expected parity in the national legal community and, especially, our own. We ought to be demanding it now.
Recent data suggest that more women than men are entering Boston law firms at the associate level. In 2003 and 2004, the numbers were 46 percent men and 54 percent women. What do we tell these women about their future legal careers? Do we say that no matter how many women are entering as associates, nothing will change? Only a few will make it to the highest echelons of firm life?
The question that should be raised by the figures in Working Mother, and raised loudly, is why so few women have made it to the equity partner level? To be sure, many of us have been asking that very question for some time.
In 1998, Lauren Stiller Rikleen, then the president of the Boston Bar Association, organized a task force on "Professional Challenges and Family Needs," which produced a nationally recognized report noting the need for "individualized work family plans" and support for "family work" alternatives.
In 2000, the Women's Bar Association released a groundbreaking report titled "More Than Part-Time," which studied the powerful effect of reduced-hours arrangements on the retention, recruitment and success of women attorneys in law firms.
In 2003, in an address before the WBA, I called for urgent attention to the relative lack of women in leadership positions at firms. I linked the lack of women in leadership to the conflicting demands of law firm practice and women's child care responsibilities. I challenged the WBA to create a commission "to work on what we need to do now to make the workplace safe for mothers and fathers." The WBA, BBA and MBA formed the Equality Commission and worked with the MIT Workplace Center to study the problem.
More recently, the Equality Commission has issued the MIT Workplace Center report, "Women Lawyers and Obstacles to Leadership," that begins to tell the story: "The loss of women to leadership in the law follows directly from a failure in the profession to respond imaginatively to a dual need for time -- time for work and time for families."
And it concludes: "uilding time for families into law firm practice is not a general institutional norm. The availability of flexible arrangements for family care is indeterminate, unpredictable. Finding a way to combine law firm practice and care for families is at present an individual responsibility, and it generally carries professional penalties. Change in these practices is essential if women are to advance to leadership in the legal profession."
The attrition rate for women is not without serious consequences to the law firms in particular and to women's progress in the profession in general. Working Mother noted that firms lose $300,000 per third-year associate lost and replaced. The MIT report found that 30 percent of the women who enter law firms leave, while only 20 percent of the men do, and of those women who became equity partners, 15 percent leave.
And beyond the financial cost to the firms is the profound cost to the profession -- the future of women's continued progress in the law as the ranks of senior women are depleted.
We understand Working Mother's goals -- to monitor women's progress, to create benchmarks -- and we applaud its efforts. And we likewise applaud the firms it "honored" for doing better than most, but no one reading the article or the Lawyers Weekly item should be remotely satisfied.
We most assuredly are not.
Judge Nancy Gertner sits on the U.S. District Court bench. This article was written on behalf of the Equality Commission.