« Yale Comes Cheap, But Harvard Will Cost You | Main | Cadwalader's "Playboy" Partner Wants to Tell His Side »

Female Partners Still Unloved

Vivia Chen

October 25, 2011

HeelsI get in trouble every time I write about tensions in the sisterhood--the stuff about how women lawyers don't always get along, or the sniping that goes on between working lawyer-moms and stay-at-home ones.  Often, I'm accused of perpetuating negative female stereotypes.

Like it or not, I think those tensions are real. But I also think the sisterhood has made enormous strides. In law firms and corporations, women seem much more united. Maybe there's finally critical mass, so professional women feel less self-conscious. Maybe it's a generational shift. Who knows.

There's more unity among professional women, but what about the women who work for them? Here's the startling news: Female secretaries can't stand  lawyers who are women. According to a survey of 142 secretaries at big firms, Chicago-Kent law professor Felice Batlan found that not even one preferred working for a female partner. Reports the ABA Blog:

Asked whether they preferred to work for male or female partners or associates, 35 percent preferred working for male partners, 15 percent preferred working for male associates, 3 percent preferred working for female associates, none preferred working for female partners, and 47 percent had no opinion.

Why this apparent disdain for female lawyers by their secretaries (or the preferred term, "administrative assistants")? In Forbes's She Negotiates blog, Victoria Pynchon reports on what some of the participants have to say:

    1. Female attorneys have a tendency to downgrade a legal secretary;
    2. Females are . . . passive-aggressive, where a guy will just tell you the task and not get emotionally involved and make it personal;
    3. I avoid working for women because [they are] such a pain in the ass! They are too emotional and demeaning;
    4. [Women attorneys] made life hell . . . bossed secretaries around [and] had an air about them.

Reading this list of complaints surprised and sadden me. What's all this stuff about female bosses being "emotional and demeaning"? Are we back in 1985?

Before we go on, let's be honest: Working as a nonlawyer in a firm is a thankless, dead-end job. Need I remind you that lawyers are under a lot of pressure, which means they tend to be abrupt and nasty? And let's not forget law is a very snobby profession, so if you're a secretary, the assumption is that your education is limited and that you are just not that smart.

It's no joyride to serve any lawyer, but are female lawyers worse? I tend to doubt it. Personally, I was a total softy in my dealings with my secretary when I was a lawyer. For one thing, I was always afraid that if I weren't sweet and nice, I'd never get my documents done. And I was always a generous gift-giver on holidays. Most of the men at my office barely scraped together a gift certificate to Macy's for their secretaries on Christmas Eve.

But perhaps I was an exception because I was a wimp. Is it possible that women who have attained partnership are scary and tortorous? Or is this the same gap between female lawyers and female secretaries that just won't go away?


Get The Careerist in your morning e-mail. Sign up today--see box on upper right corner.

Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? E-mail The Careerist's chief blogger, Vivia Chen, at [email protected].


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

This article and the study are misogyinistic, and the authors are misogynists. So are the secretaries.

Oh, wait, they are mainly women. Uh....

OK, reality check. With rare exception, women aren't cut out to be bosses. Humankind has known this for thousands of years. Only in the past few decades have feminists set out to create the fiction that being a boss is something women are as qualified as guys to do. Thank you for reporting on the gazillionth piece of evidence of the eternal truth.

Conflict, particularly among women, sells newspapers. Solutions tend not to. My post on women secretaries not wanting to work for women partners, for instance, garnered 3800+ "hits." My post about fixing the problem got around 350. http://www.forbes.com/sites/shenegotiates/2011/10/25/treating-the-woes-of-the-legal-sweat-shop/

It's just more fun for people to talk trash about one another than to resolve their persistent conflicts.

C'est la vie!

I'm a paralegal and have one for the last 30 years - read that as I've been around the block a number of times. IMHO it just depends. I've worked for great women associates and partners. They understood what it means to be a team player (ie. everyone is part of the team, even the lowly paralegal). I've worked for hideous male associates and partners, some of whom actually shrieked. So it just depends on the individual, some PEOPLE are jerks, some aren't. Let's stop categorizing between women and men.

I think that we need more male secretries, particularly in law firms. Since all secretaries are stereotyped as female anyway, and females are usually easy targets for criticism. Ditto female attorneys who need to prove themselves in a male dominated environment. Female attorneys who try harder in their careers get promotions; female secretaries who work harder don't get promotions, they just get to handle the more difficult personalities because they are considered more "seasoned". In the current economy, their efforts are not even rewarded financially!

I have a similar experience as "been there" in that I started as a secretary, became a paralegal, went to law school and am now a lawyer. I agree that working for women was the biggest pain in the neck. With that said, I think it's often more to do with the secretary than the female attorney. As women we know how to deal with and handle men. It's part of what you learn beginning in elementary school. There's always a bit of a difference there. As women we consider other women are peers and friends, and when one is your boss the dynamics change and shift. At the risk of being sexist, it feels a bit unnatural.

The biggest point to the survey though, and the one I've seen bloggers fail to focus on, is that 47% had NO OPINION. So, almost half don't care whether they work for a man or woman. Additionally, 3% indicated they PREFER working with female associates. So, half the survey participants either favored females or had no opinion. That's the real story, and I have to believe IT is a significant improvement over what the stats would have shown 5, 10 or 15 years ago.

Well, I worked my way up... I was a support staff (paralegal, legal assistant, law clerk), then during that time, I went to law school.

Now I am the one with a paralegal. Have worked for female associates, female partners, and male associates, and male partners.

With out being sexist, and getting down to brass tax: y'all have a tendency to be trite at times.

The times that I remember as being the worst working experiences were when I was a support staff for women.

Maybe there was an added air of superiority coupled with some desired vindication ("I am a woman, and you are a man, and since I am Y O U R boss, well, I, therefore, M U S T be smarter than you..."); or, maybe the women I worked for were simply mean people...

Either way, those are the worst experiences I have had (with an associate trying to get me fired for "sub-par" work quality, which was completely inaccurate--in reality turned her down for a date, and became a target); and, while I definitely agree with Vivia's commentary that, men are more abrupt (I know I am with my paralegal), I also agree with the perspective that, women tend to personalize the issues--my paralegal A L W A Y S thinks that, I am unhappy with her as a person, and not with her work-product... or lack thereof.

And, maybe, just maybe, that is the problem: men seem to be far better at compartmentalizing their varied roles in life... and women approach life in a much more holistic-fashion (i.e., you are my "friend" at work; and, therefore, you are to be brought into my personal life, and all that comes with it; while, men usually [and I stress usually, as opposed to always] just come to work... to work).

Just a thunk...

The comments to this entry are closed.

Subscribe to get The Careerist via e-mail

Enter your e-mail address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

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: [email protected]

To search across all ALM blogs, go to www.Lexis.com.