Women in the Law

Law Prof Surveys Legal Secretaries, Chronicles Layoffs, Conflicts with Female Lawyers

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Legal secretaries are largely invisible in the academic literature, but one Chicago law professor is setting out to change that.

Felice Batlan, an assistant law professor at the Chicago-Kent College of Law, surveyed 164 legal secretaries last year and learned some sobering news, the Wisconsin Law Journal reports. Nearly 20 percent had recently lost their jobs.

Many of the secretaries responding to the survey had worked in the field for 20 or more years. About 97 percent were female and 78 percent were 41 or older. “These women are very skilled,” Batlan told the Wisconsin Law Journal. “There’s just no jobs for them to go to.”

Batlan talked about other survey findings in an interview with Missouri Lawyers Media published by Dolan Media Newswires. One discovery: Legal secretaries said they preferred to work for male associates and partners. In written responses, the secretaries said females were emotional and demanding, with “more to prove” and a penchant to “put on airs,” the story says.

“Working for a woman exposes some very complex class dynamics,” Batlan told Missouri Lawyers Media. “A woman working for a man is naturalized,” she said. “It’s what’s expected. It seems ordinary.”

Batlan has written a paper on her study that will be published next year in Studies in Law, Politics, and Society. In an abstract for SSRN, Batlan says her article will explore how legal secretaries’ roles have changed over the last 50 years.

A legal secretary a half-century ago was known as a “second wife” for the work she did helping a male lawyer plan parties, book vacations and shop for his first wife’s jewelry, Batlan told Missouri Lawyers Media. Some legal secretaries in Batlan’s 2009 survey said the model remains strong, while others have rejected that role.

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