Back in the day when Wall Street firms were filled with WASPs and afternoon tea was a daily requirement, women lawyers (if there were any) practiced in trusts and estates while the men stormed off to court or retreated to smoke-choked conference rooms to negotiate deals.
That's all ancient history, of course. T&E is dead at most big firms, and women can be found in virtually every practice area across The Am Law 200. Still, that doesn't necessarily mean that women have succeeded across the board. This isn't the first time we've noted that women account for just 19 percent of the partners at big law firms. So where are the female lawyers thriving? One area is labor and employment. And no, it's not because it's a family- friendly practice.
In Women's Work, an article in the spring Labor & Employment supplement, I found that the percentage of women partners in labor and employment groups often surpassed that of women partners in the firm overall. At Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker, "women represented 34 percent of labor and employment partners but only 14.9 percent of all the firm's women partners. It's a similar story at Jones Day (28 percent versus 18 percent overall)."
Another surprise: Women in this practice area actually hold leadership positions. Nancy Abell heads labor and employment at Paul, Hastings; Lisa Damon does so at Seyfarth Shaw; Elise Bloom cochairs the group at Proskauer (and Proskauer labor and employment partner Bettina Plevan also sits on the firm's executive committee). Labor and employment shop Littler Mendelson went so far as to install a female managing partner, Wendy Tice-Wallner, way back in 1999.
Why are women so successful in a field where there are so many brutal fights about discrimination and harassment? Well, here's the clincher: Those sticky human resource issues demand more emotional intelligence that women possess more of. At least, that's what some women practicing in labor and employment say.
The women featured in the article are tough cookies who regularly defend management against nasty claims of sexual discrimination. It's ironic that they attribute their success, at least in part, to being more emotionally attuned:
Employment litigation requires more sensitivity, says Plevan: 'Unlike a commercial dispute, where it's just dollars and cents, clients are emotional on both plaintiff and defense sides.' If you bring a claim of sexual discrimination or are charged with retaliatory behavior, she notes, 'your whole reputation is at stake.'
'Women are interested in motives and how relationships work,' says Plevan. 'Sometimes women will look at [facts] differently.'
Plevan and the other women interviewed in the article come perilously close to saying that women have a natural affinity for employment and labor law. If so, does that mean some practice areas are better suited for one sex or the other? And if so, is this chauvinistic or realistic? Tell us what you think.
If you have topics you'd like to discuss, or information to share for The Careerist, e-mail chief blogger Vivia Chen at VChen@alm.com.