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Sober Up, Then Have a Stiff One

Vivia Chen

January 5, 2011

Fotolia_25725472_XS The following post was originally published in the January issue of The American Lawyer.

At first blush, it seems almost an embarrassment of riches--the achievements of the 45 women lawyers (under the age of 45, no less!) who fill the pages in January's issue of The American Lawyer. Reading about their feats, you can't help but feel that women have arrived.

Certainly, they seem to be reaching the highest echelons of the most elite firms, and making a mark in an incredible array of practice areas. There's Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft's Julian Chung, advising the U.S. Department of the Treasury on its $33.3 billion DIP loan to General Motors and its $4.1 billion DIP loan to Chrysler; Sullivan & Cromwell's Audra Cohen, leading the team advising NBTY  in its $3.8 billion sale to The Carlyle Group; and Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan's Victoria Maroulis, defending Genentech in a complex patent suit against Sanofi-Aventis Deutschland GmbH.

There are scores of other women who are just as formidable (and that's not even counting those who came close to making the list).

All this must be the face of progress--a sign that women are on the brink of a breakthrough. Maybe even a harbinger that women will rule--as Hanna Rosin predicted in her recent essay, "The End of Men," in The Atlantic--thanks to the supremacy of brains over brawn in the near future.

Time to pop the champagne and celebrate women in the profession, right? Not so fast. Though these 45 women deserve to be toasted for their success, let's also recognize them for what they are: the exceptions. In fact, my colleague Amy Kolz reports that she had to dig deep to find women who played lead dealmaking roles in macho stalwarts like M&A and private equity.

Indeed, the 45 are the rare birds, soaring above the vast majority of women lawyers who still lag well behind their male colleagues. In November the National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL) issued its report on women lawyers at the nation's 200 largest firms, and the results weren't encouraging: Women are barely represented in firm leadership or the ranks of major rainmakers (almost 50 percent of the firms report that they have no women among their top ten business-getters); women equity partners earned 85 percent of what male equity partners make. And, of course, there's that too-familiar statistic: Women account for only 15 percent of all equity partners--a fact that's been a constant for the last five years, notes NAWL (The American Lawyer and Catalyst put the women ­equity figure closer to 16 percent).

As for those women lucky enough to make partner (both equity and nonequity), the experience is hardly a smooth ride. Nearly a third of the 700 women partners surveyed by the Project for Attorney Retention at University of California at Hastings (PAR) and The Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA) report being "bullied, threatened, or intimidated out of origination credit."

And here's more sobering news: The National Law Journal recently released its own findings for the top 250 firms that showed a slight drop in the percentage of women lawyers overall in recent years. That dip is especially jarring, considering the high number of women who have been pouring out of the nation's law schools for the last two decades (NAWL says women represent 43 percent of all law graduates since 1990, and about 50 percent since 2000). "Over time, we realized that the advancement of women in firms was not simply a matter of a large pipeline," say the authors of the NAWL report.

For those of us who have been covering the progress of women for a decade now, those statistics seem improbably awful. In June 2003 ["Cracks in the Ceiling"], I looked at how women fared in big law firms--and the picture didn't seem dramatically worse than it is now. Though women made up only 16 percent of all partners--both equity and nonequity--in The Am Law 100 back in 2002, there was a sense that women could only move forward. At that time, Davis Polk & Wardwell was held as a model for instituting a part-time track that also encouraged women to become equity partners.

I thought--as other women probably did--that other firms would follow, and that women's progress would be more or less linear. While big firms routinely offer family-friendly measures, like reduced work schedules, that are supposed to encourage women lawyers, often that's just window-dressing. The latest numbers tell the same old sad story: Precious few women make it to the top.

Pop the champagne? I don't think so. But a stiff drink might be in order. 


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When Jews were actually being discriminated against by the dominant WASP firms, they created their own firms. You may have heard of some of these Jewish firms, like Wachtell, Skadden, Paul Weiss, Fried Frank, etc. etc, because I hear they have been very successful.

If partner-quality women are truly being discriminated against, they are free to start their own law firms and beat the "male" law firms with their talents. Why this has not happened is left as an exercise to the reader.

The top men are smarter than the top women - hands down - and more driven - hands down.

Men got where we are for a reason. The only thing keeping us from being even more dominant is institutional gender discrimination and therats of lawsuits.

A third of women were bullied out of origination credit? The number on its own is meaningless. Does that not happen to guys, too?

Anyway, if you were a student of history, you would not want women to succeed. The rise of women has been associated with the decline of empires throughout history. Its a sign of a successful civilization getting sloppy. "An increasing materialism, the retreat of morality, the advent of feminism, and the appearance and influence of women in public life are all hallmarks of a civilization in decline." http://www.the-spearhead.com/2010/10/25/article-review-the-fate-of-empires/

Well said Vivia. I've been waiting for someone (other than ATL) to offer up a "sober", clarifiying review of his semi-celebratory AmLaw announcement.

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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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