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Are Flex/Part-Time Options Holding Women Back?

Vivia Chen

September 13, 2010

The women "My firm told me that I'd better tell recruits that flextime works great here," says a woman partner at an Am Law 100 firm. "But, honestly, I don't think it works if you want to be really successful."

The official big-firm party line these days is that flextime and part-time options are yours for the taking, and that you can still stay on track (albeit perhaps a slower one) if you do. Sound too good to be true? That partner thinks so--and there are some indications that she might be right.

In the September issue of The American Lawyer, I looked at the state of women equity partners in The Am Law 100. (Actually, only 70 of the 100 provided verifiable data. Some of the missing 30 firms either didn't provide complete information or chose not to participate at all. Might they be hiding really dismal female equity figures? Who know?)

In any case, this is the punch line: The high scorers for women equity partners--those with percentages in the high teens or better--tend to be the one-tier, super elite firms: Davis Polk (23 percent); Wilmer Cutler (23 percent); Paul Weiss (21 percent); Ropes & Gray (20 percent); Simpson Thacher (19 percent); and the like. (Click for chart.)

The big irony: Some of the low scorers are two-tier firms with liberal, well-utilized family-friendly policies--Perkins Coie (9 percent women equity); Duane Morris (9 percent women equity); and Crowell & Moring (13 percent women equity).

The results seem counterintuitive. Who would guess that women would fare better on the equity barometer at firms where the odds of making partner are ridiculously slim for everyone? By the same token, wouldn't you expect that at the less competitive, two-tier firms (especially those with well-established part-time or flexible policies), there'd be women equity partners popping out at every corner?

It's a bit of a mystery why women are achieving equity at higher rates in some of the one-tier firms. I suspect that the culture of the firms has something to do with it. But is the lack of a nonequity option also a major contributing factor? Arguably, women have no choice but to go the whole distance if they want to stay at those one-tier firms--and so some do.

Which means that choice might be a double-edged sword. If women had the option of flexibility, would more of them opt for the pink ghetto of income partnership? Some women readily say yes.  “I haven’t really paid much attention to [the equity/nonequity issue],” says Duane Morris partner Jamie Mandell, who's on an 80 percent schedule. “It’s only a financial thing.”

Ah, yes, "only a financial thing." But isn't that the point? Isn't economic parity the crux of the whole debate about women partners? Are women selling themselves short when they don't focus like a laser on that "financial thing"?

Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? Email The Careerist's chief blogger Vivia Chen at VChen@alm.com.

Photo: EastWest Imaging / Fotolia.com

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Success at a law firm (equity partner) is primarily from having your own clients who pay for lots of legal work. The meat-eater culture at the one tier firms gives aggressive women a chance, although a very small chance. -----------
Secondarily, you can be a service partner to a powerful rainmaker partner. The two-tier culture tends to encourage women who act like stepford wives at the office, so they don't get promoted to partner unless the M/F ratio gets really bad.
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Success in a law firm pretty much requires an unbalanced life, because the law firm must BE your life, you have to make the clients and the work your top priority. If you want a balanced life, you can treat the law firm like just a job, and get paid nicely.
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This is similar to being an entrepreneur constantly in start-up mode. Or an artist passionate about and obsessed with her work. These folks have unbalanced lives, too, but channel their energy and creativity into their work.

Viva writes,

"Ah, yes, 'only a financial thing.' But isn't that the point? Isn't economic parity the crux of the whole debate about women partners? Are women selling themselves short when they don't focus like a laser on that 'financial thing'?"

No, Vivia, for people making a lot of money already, making every single possible dollar isn't the end all and be all, but I guess you are too much of a money-grubber to realize that.

By the way, I went to the same law school as Mandel, and also graduated with honors - four years earlier, in fact- and she makes a lot more money than me. In fact, starting salaries at her firm are more than I make.

Where's the equity in that?

The option to not go all the way is almost definitely what's making the difference here. I suspect that many of these women have realized that "all the way" actually sucks pretty hard.

By the time you're coming up for partnership, you probably have your loans paid off or gone and a bit of money in the bank. Which would you rather do, earn $500,000 and work 3000 hours? or earn $175,000 and only work 1500 hours?

For those in New York City, please see the information below about a free discussion next Monday, 9/20 at Columbia Law:


Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter


Columbia Law School, 1125 Amsterdam Avenue, William and June Warren Hall, L107


Monday, September 20, 2010, 6:00pm to 7:30pm


Description: Privileged women don't "opt out" of good jobs--they are pushed out. And opting out is not an option for many working families. RESHAPING THE WORK-FAMILY DEBATE: Why Men and Class Matter, written by Joan C. Williams, the author the NY Times called "...the rock star..." of the field, shows how adding men and class to the discussion is the key to progress on work-family balance.


Featured Speaker: Distinguished Professor Joan C. Williams, 1066 Foundation Chair at U.C. Hastings College of the Law, Founding Director of the Center for WorkLife Law (WLL) and Co-Director of the Project for Attorney Retention (PAR).


Followed by a candid panel discussion on men and the need for workplace flexibility. Panelists include: Eric Berger, Deloitte & Touche, Gary Phelan, Esq., Cohen & Wolf, PC, Matt Schneider, Co-Organizer, NYC Dads Group, and Daniel Hekman, Administration for Children and Families


Policy Summary: Dina Bakst, A Better Balance

Moderator: Susan Sturm, Columbia Center for Institutional and Social Change.


Sponsored by: A Better Balance, Columbia University Office of Work/Life, Columbia Center for Institutional and Social Change, Columbia Human Rights Institute, and Columbia Law Women's Association.


Joan C. Williams is a prize-winning author and expert on work/family issues. Williams' book, Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What to Do About It (Oxford, 2000), was awarded the Gustavus Myers Outstanding Book Award. Williams has authored or co-authored four books and over 50 law review articles, and has had articles excerpted in casebooks for six different subjects. She has taught at Harvard, the University of Virginia, and UC Hastings law schools, and has lectured widely, including at Yale, Harvard, Columbia, Pennsylvania, Cornell, Duke and more than a dozen other law schools, and in Chile, Ecuador, Guatemala and Peru. Williams has been widely quoted in the press, in publications as diverse as The Wall Street Journal, Business Week, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Parenting Magazine, Working Mother and O, and has appeared in other media, including CBS Nightly News, CNN, CSPAN, The Diane Rehm Show, Public Interest, and Talk of the Nation. She was also featured on the PBS documentary, Juggling Work and Family, with Hedrick Smith. In 2006, Williams received the American Bar Association's Margaret Brent Award for Women Lawyers of Achievement. In 2008, she delivered the Massey lectures on American Civilization at Harvard University.

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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