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Women in the Law

Why are female lawyers leaving BigLaw? ‘Maternal wall bias,’ lack of transparency cited

Posted Jul 31, 2013 8:24 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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The percentage of female equity partners at America’s top 200 law firms “remains stalled at an unacceptable 15 percent, with little progress over the past 10 years,” according to ABA President Laurel Bellows.

Those female equity partners earn 89 percent of the compensation of their male counterparts, Bellows says, even while performing similar work and generating similar revenue. Bellows weighed in on the problem—and solutions—for CNN, which asked six experts for their suggestions.

Meanwhile the Daily Beast also has a story on the “female lawyer exodus” that offers expert advice for changing the BigLaw environment.

Bellows says law firms need to be more transparent about their compensation process and need to put more women on compensation committees. General counsel can also have some influence by hiring firms with an established record of equal opportunity and compensation. Bellows refers to the ABA’s gender equity initiative, which addresses “inequities holding women back and even driving them out of law.”

Beth Kaufman, president of the National Association of Women Lawyers, also weighs in for CNN. She says both men and women should be allowed flexible working arrangements, with the same opportunity to advance. Too often, those who work part-time or flex-time are viewed as unreliable or lacking ambition, she says.

The Daily Beast chronicles other issues, including tedious work and long days that drive both men and women from the profession. There is also “maternal wall bias” against women who return from maternity leave, as partners assume new mothers won’t be interested in travel or cases requiring a significant time commitment. The writer also recalls issues from her one-year stint at a law firm.

“These types of implicit biases between men and women are constantly at play in law firms,” according to the Daily Beast writer. “I witnessed this firsthand when my firm held a poker and billiards recruiting event for law students—and then wondered why the five new students they hired were only male.”

There is also the problem of sexual harassment, which can remain hidden since victims fear harming their careers. “For me, the sexual harassment was subtle, but it was there,” the story says. “A partner would touch me on the waist as I passed him in the hall, or guide my friend by the small of her back at a luncheon. My male colleague’s mentor, who was a leading partner at the firm, sent him an email asking if he was ‘tapping that little thing,’ referring to a young staff member.

“When I went to lunch a few times with one of the firm’s partners, I’d expect the conversation to turn inappropriate: He’d ask whether I liked to dress my boyfriend or make a remark about the waitresses’ chests. He was so notorious for these lunches that at our Christmas-party skit, all the female students dressed up in tight black outfits, parodying the waitresses at the restaurants he took us to.”

Prior coverage:

ABAJournal.com: "Looking to close the gender pay gap? Negotiation is key, free guide says"

ABA Journal: "Meet 6 law firm leaders, each with a different story, each at the top of her game"

ABA Journal: "Do women's initiatives work?"

ABAJournal.com: "Former BigLaw partner: I faced ‘incredible obstacles’ that male lawyers didn’t have to deal with"

ABAJournal.com: "How to be taken seriously? Recent grads who formed criminal defense firm fight ‘sweetie’ image"

ABAJournal.com: "New ABA online toolkit helps law firms address gender-based pay inequities"

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