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Where Are the Women Litigators?

Claire Zillman

March 3, 2011

Fotolia_10325124_XS Today's blogger is Claire Zillman, a reporter at The American Lawyer.

Oh, if only women could schmooze. We’d be better equipped to solve so many misfortunes.

One such ill: the dearth of female lawyers in commercial and appellate cases.

A panel of legal professionals suggested that women lawyers’ ability--or lack thereof--to network, schmooze, and ask for business is keeping them from first-chairing commercial and appellate cases.

The discussion, which took place recently at the New York City Bar, started with some staggering statistics: 98 commercial cases went before the court from September 2010 to January 2011, according to data collected from the New York state court's appellate division, first department. On 86 of those cases, male attorneys took the lead role, leaving 12 cases in the hands of female attorneys. That means that 12 percent of the court’s total commercial docket had a woman at the helm. Yet nationally, 31 percent of all lawyers are women.

Those numbers just don’t add up. Several women New York state court judges noticed the discrepancy and initiated the event, which attracted about 200 bleary-eyed female associates, law school students, partners, and judges.

The panel included Judge Deborah Batts, district court judge for the Southern District of New York; Bristol-Myers Squibb general counsel Sandra Leung; Allstate Insurance general counsel Michele Coleman Mayes; Justice Angela Mazzarelli of the appellate division; Sullivan & Cromwell partner Penny Shane, and the moderator, Justice Rosalyn Richter of the appellate division. They were asked to play the blame game.women litigators

Who’s at fault for this disparity? Big firms, who aren’t dedicating enough resources to developing female talent? Clients, who often opt for the tradition playbook that calls for older white men to quarterback a trial? Perhaps we should blame women’s mothering duties that pull them away from their work? Or could we point a finger at women themselves, who aren’t aggressive enough in securing a lead counsel role?

“It’s all of the above,” said Shane, after these options were posed to the panel.

Yet one question in particular hit a chord: “The reason we’re seeing all these men on all these cases is because men get business and women don’t,” said Richter, the moderator. “Is that true?”

Shane called women’s weaker relationships with clients “a contributing cause” to the lack of female lawyers in commercial cases. But, she said, “the ways of getting business include doing very good work, and women do very good work.”

Bristol-Myers’s Leung argued that doing good work isn’t enough. “To really get business, you gotta schmooze,” she said, and women are sometimes more reluctant to do so. “I get far more phone calls from male partners at law firms wanting to meet me for lunch than women,” she said.

Allstate’s Coleman Mayes agreed: “I have never seen a man be reticent to ask me for business. In fact, they will strangle you to make sure you sit long enough so they can tell you they want your business and why they’re so good,” she said. “Women will dance around it: ‘Well, I don’t want to abuse our relationship.’ And I say, ‘Men don’t care if they abuse it; neither should you.’”

If women can’t build relationships, said Coleman Mayes, they’re at a disadvantage, “because at the end of the day, this is not a charitable organization we’re running.”

So women plus schmoozing equals more opportunities in court? Is the solution to solving the absence of women in commercial and appellate litigation that simple? Or should other factors like mentoring programs, family obligations, or law firm politics carry just as much or more blame?

 Related posts: The Silence of Women, Gender Gap on Wall Street


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The title of this blog should be changed: "Disgruntled Female Lawyer" ... I agree with Dovid %100

Perhaps women in-house counsel who are making the decisions about where to direct business, such as the ones quoted in this article, should not so readily give their business over to men who schmooze and give more work to women attorneys who lunch less, but perhaps work more (and who, as some have written, may have to spend more hours working than their male counterparts to gain the respect and attention of the partners and colleagues in their firms). I do not see that repeated requests for lunch make one a better litigator.

In my opinion, if more women were already at the top in the field, a lot of the issues would sort themselves out.

In my opinion, if more women were already at the top in the field, a lot of the issues would sort themselves out.

Had another thought: if there really a disproportionate amount of guys litigating, when are we going to get an article here bemoaning that there are a disproportionately-high number of women in another area of law?

Or is the only place you will find a disproportionate number of female lawyers in the middle of the day the shopping mall, spending the money hubby makes?

@ Bec. Maybe if women didn't harassment lawsuits against guys at the drop of a hat for at-best minor miscues outside of the office, you'd get invited more.

@ Government Attorney. You have any stats to back up your assertion? I work for a government litigation office, and 3 of the 5 attorneys are women, including the Bureau Chief.

The person at the head of a litigation is almost inevitably a partner. Women are just 15% of law firm partners. Thus, the NY statistic does not seem out of line to me. (The 15% partnership rate does, but that's a different article.)

I agree with Claire that women who try to pursue career goals in the same fashion as men are usually stereotyped and/or taken less seriously, but lets step back here and look at her research methodology.

We have about 100 examples, but they are (1) commercial, (2) restricted to NYC, (3) only at the appellate level [I may be misinterpreting this, they may just be reported by the appellate courts]. The article then compares this to the percentage of women lawyers nationally. So consider this: in my law school class of 200, there are about %52 men. In my law school section of 20, there are %35 men including myself, which is about the disparity in the article, but would anyone argue that the law school created a discriminatory environment against men in my section?

Once again, I agree with the crux of the argument; there is, certainly among those 50+, maybe even 40+ or 30+ in years, a "good 'ol boy" mentality at play in the legal field and others career fields which require skills and traits that are viewed by society as "masculine". My father goes for coffee with business contacts probably 5-6 times a week for his architectural business; if I said the same about my mother people (especially in the 30, 40, 50) would criticize her, because women "shouldn't exhibit [x,y, or z] behavior". But I'm just saying that when you start playing with statistics and numbers, and especially "percentages", you forget about causation.

Hopefully, my generation will take strides towards limiting this. In my opinion, the woman who can wield herself in such an "androgynous" way that she could raise a family and go first chair in an appellate case is better than the woman who can only do one or the other.

I'm starting my career and am finding it tougher to network than the men do. For starters, men often leave women out of their afterwork activities unless they are interested in dating you. Also, I run into the problem of the men I'm trying to network with thinking I'm trying to get involved with them romantically.

The biggest hurdle is the fact that the people at the top in the business and law world are all male. It wasn't long ago that women were formally excluded from education and the professions/business world so this should be no surprise.

Men, do the right thing and stop leaving women out of everything and/or viewing us solely as potential romantic partners. We are interested in climbing the ladder to.

For us women, we need to do more to help each other out with this.

As a former female litigator, the obstacle I kept running into was simply that the people at the top of litigation were men. Since they saw themselves in the young male associates coming in and saw either cute girls or women who reminded them of the other supporting personnel there (paralegals), I had to out-perform my male peers by an extensive billable hour margin to get their attention. And my initial attempts to "schmooze" led to my being propositioned, not promoted. (I worked in corporate positions before where schmoozing did lead to promotions and no inappropriate behaviors, so I'm confident that my schmoozing was wholly professional and nonsuggestive). All in all, it was exhausting and far more effort to be considered a peer in litigation than it was after going in-house. I think if more women were already at the top in the field, a lot of the issues would sort themselves out. It's not as if women in litigation are shy, non-aggressive, or unable to schmooze. Most resemble the love-child of a politician, machiavelli, investigative reporter, and/or a pit bull. They are the only female segment in any field I've interacted with that seem to shamelessly demand business on par with most male associates. But men who are aggressive are valued; women who are aggressive face a lot of sterotypes and judgment in my experience. I can't ask for the same things in the same way as the guys and get the same response.

The title of this blog should be changed: "Disgruntled Female Lawyer"

The majority of the stories are focused on agitation perceived to be experienced by female lawyers... oh, and let's not forget the healthy dose of male-bashing thrown into each story, for good measure.

Maybe it's time to remove me from the distribution list, or simply issue the stories with a warning akin to "if you have a penis, you'll likely be offended by these words."

Seriously, it's as if each story paints a picture of a Star Wars like struggle between the Empire (male lawyers, and the totality of the industry) and the Rebel Alliance (female lawyers).

At least that story has entertainment-value... the perpetually misandry that Ms. Chen writes is downright embarrassing!

"Oh, if only women could schmooze. We’d be better equipped to solve so many misfortunes."

As a female Government attorney, who does not need to schmooze clients, I can't agree with this explanation. Women are absent from our litigation teams too. I know it may be tempting to some to point to the fact that we're Government attorneys, and rest their case, but it's more nuanced than that. So why is it that even absent a bottom line women are excluded from litigation teams?

At the age of lead counsel, are female lawyers 31% of the total of lawyers? No, since we know that there is a higher percentage of female lawyers among younger lawyers. But lead counsel tend to be older, obviously.

Why are you comparing a small slice of New York litigation with a national statistic?

Why aren't you looking at divorce cases?

What about the women with rich husbands that aren't doing mothering or lawyering?

Why are straight men under-represented in the fashion industry?

It's interesting to read the comment that "women can't build relationships." Isn't that exactly what women are stereotypically known for excelling at?

If a female litigator isn't first-chairing a trial, it isn't because she can't schmooze or she isn't aggressive enough -- if anything, it's this inaccurate perspective that is continually perpetuated by attorneys such as those quoted in this post that limits women attorneys' opportunities when entering the profession and keeps them on the second-chair track.

I've seen plenty of female litigators who could aggressively argue the pants off "older white men quarterbacking a trial" and schmooze the sleaziest male attorney under the table.

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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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