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Women--Ripe for Exploitation?

Vivia Chen

November 16, 2010

Bundesarchiv_B_145_Bild-F001163-0012,_Köln,_Textilfabrik_Bierbaum-Proenen Sometimes I think Steven Harper and I are in a neck-to-neck race to see who's more cynical about the legal profession. His post in The Am Law Daily about the proliferation of non-partnership tracks in big firms strikes an ominous note. The new positions popping up at big firms (from off-track associates to contract lawyers) are creating an ever-enlarging pool of dead-end, low-paying jobs--what Harper calls "a vast underbelly of lawyers."

But what Harper doesn't say is that this new underclass will likely be populated by a disproportionate share of women. Think about it: Law firms want cheap, reliable talent, while women are only too eager to forsake advancement for a reduced schedule.

In fact, women are already swelling some of those lowly positions ranks. "Women represent 60 percent of staff attorneys, the highest percentage of women lawyers in any category of practice," says the newly released report by The National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL).

Some might applaud these alternative tracks, but they are also ripe for exploitation. For law firms, it's a fantastic, economic way to leverage lawyers. "For as long as they get paid less than their billing rates, they contribute to equity partner wealth," writes Harper. "Rather than up-or-out, it's becoming 'stick around and make the equity partners some money.'"

Law firms and their consultants make the new models sound benevolent, as if they're simply being sensitive to the needs of employees. They talk about how folks don't really want the pressure of being partner these days, and the need for firms to develop alternative career tracks. Firms often steer away from terms like "permanent associate" or "staff lawyer." Instead, terms like "designer" and "individualized" tracks are thrown about.

How wonderful. A dead-end job packaged like some type of holistic spa treatment.


Related post: Recession Tough on Women Lawyers.

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A clarification seems in order: I was writing about the creation of jobs that are very low-paying. I'm not talking about jobs that are pegged to the going-rate. As Steven Harper and others have pointed out, there's a trend for firms to create more categories of lowly-paid lawyers--the "underclass."

How is it exploitation when the best and smartest lawyers are women? I doubt the top tier women lawyers are being taken advantaged of.

I join the chorus of those who do not see this as "exploitation", at least on a macro sense (though there are clearly individual cases where individual attorneys are being treated "unfairly"). It is just reality that law firms value (and get more benefit from) "rainmaking" and extraordinary time commitment to the job more than they benefit from a person just "being a good lawyer for a reasonable time commitment". So, the pay and advancement is less. But if you are the person that *wants* the job being a good lawyer for reasonable, flexible time commitment, you are not being "exploited" if that option is open and rewarded in accordance with its benefit to the firm.

I've been in house for 16 years now with a large university. My salary is not what it would be with a major firm working in my specialized area, but neither is my schedule what it would be. Fair trade, in my view! (Yes, I did the law firm stuff for a number of years before switching, so I do have a clue on that environment.)

I would hardly call these jobs "dead end," since so many of them are so high-paying. They're not exactly data entry or fast food. And what's wrong with a well-paying job that has benefits and offers a more favorable schedule?

I would LOVE to be a "staff attorney" as long as I get benefits. That isn't the lowest rung of the ladder, in case you didn't know. We "of counsel" people who are NOT old, actually just out of school a few years, are illegally labeled as independent contractors and given no benefits whatsoever. No sick or vacation days, no health insurance, no retirement savings, no disability insurance, no NOTHING. Now THAT is exploitation!! :(

I am a young, female attorney who is about to have her first child. I made the money-for-lifestyle trade right out of law school. I opted for a small firm where I knew my schedule would be reduced (1700 hour expectation) and telecommuting would be encouraged. I make just a little more than your average contract attorney, but I'm still on the partner track (even though partners here make less than at BigLaw). Everyone who wants to have a life outside of work needs to identify their priorities and make compromises. If women are forced into it, then it's exploitation. Otherwise, it's just called making tough choices.

Not trying to be argumentative (how unlike a lawyer!), but it's not clear to me how they're being exploited. If they're getting a more flexible (and less stressful) schedule, it seems to make sense that the tradeoff could be lower pay.


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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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