Women in the Law

Not One Legal Secretary Surveyed Preferred Working with Women Partners; Prof Offers Reasons Why


Please see this note from the ABA Journal Board of Editors.

Clarification: When Chicago-Kent law professor Felice Batlan surveyed 142 legal secretaries at larger law firms in 2009, not one expressed a preference for working with a female partner.

Asked whether they preferred to work for male or female partners or associates, 35 percent preferred working for male partners, 15 percent preferred working for male associates, 3 percent preferred working for female associates, none preferred working for female partners, and 47 percent had no opinion.

Ninety-five percent of the legal secretaries who responded to the online survey were women. Most were middle aged and had considerable experience. They came from firms of more than 100 lawyers. Batlan wrote about the results in an article (purchase req.) published by Emerald Insight. Forbes’ She Negotiates blog also reported on the survey findings.

Some secretaries elaborated on why they preferred to work for males, with these survey comments:

• “Females are harder on their female assistants, more detail oriented, and they have to try harder to prove themselves, so they put that on you. And they are passive aggressive where a guy will just tell you the task and not get emotionally involved and make it personal.”

• “I just feel that men are a little more flexible and less emotional than women. This could be because the female partners feel more pressure to perform.”

• “Female attorneys have a tendency to downgrade a legal secretary.”

• “I am a female legal secretary, but I avoid working for women because [they are] such a pain in the ass! They are too emotional and demeaning.”

• “Female attorneys are either mean because they’re trying to be like their male counterparts or too nice/too emotional because they can’t handle the stress. Either way, their attitude/lack of maturity somehow involves you being a punching bag.”

• Women lawyers have “an air about them.”

Some legal secretaries said they didn’t like working for women because they were too independent, Batlan writes. One woman wrote of her male boss: “My partner in particular tends to forget the little things. I often find myself tailing him as he’s walking out the door to a meeting going down a list of things he may need. Oddly, I don’t feel like my female attorneys need that kind of attention.”

A sizable minority—45 percent of the respondents—said they did personal tasks for lawyers. Still, most respondents indicated that the concept of legal secretary as “second wife” is old school, particularly since secretaries typically work for more than one lawyer.

Batlan wondered if legal secretaries’ attitudes toward women lawyers is influenced by societal expectations. “For a woman to serve a man is an arrangement that conforms to and reproduces dominant and traditional, although contested and changing, gender arrangements,” she writes. “Gender structures tell men that they are entitled to women’s help and that women are supposed to freely give it.”

Other possible reasons: Men still have the power in law firms, and legal secretaries want to work for those in power. Or women lawyers may be more abrupt because of tensions created by conflicts between work and family. Or female lawyers may perceive that the secretaries are willing to do more work for male than women bosses, creating frictions.

Batlan suggests that women lawyers may be “in a double-bind situation.” If they don’t behave like males, they are perceived as too emotional, and if they do act like men, they are perceived as putting on airs.

Other survey findings:

• Nearly 71 percent of the surveyed secretaries said the recession had affected their jobs, and nearly 81 percent said their firms had laid off secretaries. Some now worked for more lawyers, some reported decreased benefits, and some reported no or little pay increases. Eighteen percent had been recently laid off.

• Asked about the traits that make a good legal secretary, many indicated that it was important to control their emotions. One secretary listed the traits this way: “Gets to work on time, does the assigned work, hasn’t murdered a lawyer by the end of her day.”

• The legal secretaries were generally satisfied with their work schedules. Seventy-five percent worked 30 to 40 hours a week.

• Asked if attorneys respected them, 67 percent of the secretaries said they were respected, and 29 percent said “it depends.”

Also see:

ABAJournal.com: “Legal Secretary Study’s Findings Spark Controversy, Engender Debate”

Prior coverage:

ABAJournal.com: “Law Prof Surveys Legal Secretaries, Chronicles Layoffs, Conflicts with Female Lawyers”

Headline updated at 9:30 a.m. to clarify that none of the legal secretaries surveyed preferred women partners, but 3 percent preferred working for female associates. Last updated Nov. 23 to include link to letter from the ABA Journal Board of Editors.

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