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Recession Tough on Women Lawyers

Vivia Chen

November 9, 2010

Fotolia_25454577_XS Let's not mince words: The just-released survey from The National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL) tracking women at the 200 largest firms is a real downer.

"I had hoped to see better numbers," says NAWL president Dorian Denburg.

First, the familiar bad news: NAWL finds that women constitute only 15 percent of equity partners (it's been the same rate for the last five years) and are barely represented in the most influential committees at their law firms. What's more, nearly half of the firms say that there's not a single woman among their top ten rainmakers.

Now, the new bad news: Contrary to those optimists who say that the recession has had a positive effect on work/life balance issues, women did not fare well during the recession. In a nutshell, the changes in the profession and the economic downturn have not been kind to lawyers in general and women in particular. (The National Law Journal also reports that the number of women and minority lawyers declined during this past year, according to NALP.)

One change in the profession is the proliferation of non-partner-track lawyers. NAWL finds that 80 percent of Am Law 100 firms and 50 percent of Second Hundred firms employ staff lawyers. But the big surprise is that "more than 60 percent of staff attorneys are women--the highest percentage of women lawyers in any category or practice, and by definition, a category with little possibility of career advancement."

But given the relative novelty of the staff attorney position, the report cautions that "it is perhaps too soon to predict that [this job] is or will become a 'pink' ghetto. Nevertheless, it is a phenomenon worth watching."

The other trend concerns the impact of part-time work on women's careers. According to NAWL:

In the typical large firm, about 6 percent of the lawyers are working part-time, and 75 percent
of these part-time lawyers are women. Moreover, 80 percent of women working part-time
were doing so during their first 20 years of practice while, in contrast, 70 percent of the men
working part-time had been in practice more than 20 years.

Not only are the part-timers "frequently viewed by their firms as insufficiently committed to their careers," says NAWL, but they also ended up getting the ax faster than other groups during the recession:

In the 2009 report, we noted that almost two-thirds of firms terminated one or more part-time attorneys and that, in the typical firm, 100 percent of those laid off were women. For 2010, the numbers and percentages have not improved substantially: 56 percent of firms terminated one or more part-time employees, and in 83 percent of those firms, more women than men were terminated.

The upshot, concludes NAWL, is that "there is no significant gender effect from the involuntary terminations of full-time lawyers," though "women bear the brunt of layoffs of part-time lawyers."

But NAWL is not passing judgment on the wisdom of doing part-time work, says Denburg: "It's a very personal decision. But do I think it's a great pipeline for equity partnership? No."


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If the average workday is 8-12 hours at the typical law firm, how do people who only work half that look? I know that we need to advocate for better work/life balance, but I think the problem goes much deeper than simply allowing some people to work part-time if they want to.

What does Ms. Flex-Time have to say about this? Seems like her happy optimism was a bit premature. Or am I just part of the problem, not the solution?

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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: [email protected]

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