“Women belong in all places where decisions are being made . . . . It shouldn’t be that women are the exception.” –Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Women began earning American juris doctorate degrees in 1870, began arguing before the United States Supreme Court in 1879, and began organizing as a group by forming the National Association of Women Lawyers in 1899. Although the road for female lawyers was perilous in the early years, and some would say that continues to be the case, the legal industry has progressed leaps and bounds for women in recent years. Lady lawyers are representing clients in every court, holding powerful positions in private practice, and advising some of the largest corporations in our country. This progression over time is inspiring, but we still have more work to do.
Women have made a stronger showing in law school admissions in recent years. The number of women who began juris doctorate programs in 2017 was 51%, in 2018 was 52%, and in 2019 was 54%. However, even though the number of women graduates has exceeded 50% every year since 2016, women only comprise 38% of all lawyers in the United States.
Obtaining a law degree is certainly a difficult feat, but that is not the end of the struggle for lady lawyers as they continue to fight against the proverbial “glass ceiling.” The traditional progression of a career at a law firm includes a number of years as an associate attorney, with the aim of securing a position as partner. As of 2019, 47% of associates are women, while only 24% of partners are women.
We can glean from these statistics that at some point along the timeline of the standard partner track, women are digressing to take non-traditional roles in their law firms, leave firm life for corporate in-house positions, or leave the practice of law on a temporary or permanent basis. There are many explanations for why this happens. Depending on the area of law, some firms impose strict billable hour requirements for their associates. These requirements are known to cause a severe imbalance in a lawyer’s work/life balance and impose incredible levels of stress. Certainly, billing requirements in this sense affect all attorneys regardless of gender. However, the most obvious reason why stringent billing requirements cause women to leave their law firm positions, either temporarily or permanently, is to accommodate raising children.
Research conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2017 indicates that our society largely believes that men face more pressure to financially support their families and obtain career success, while the pressure of being physically attractive and an involved parent falls more heavily on women. Although our society sees an increasing number of men take on the role of primary caretaker, both societal pressure and personal preferences may account for the disproportionate number of women who leave firm life or choose a non-partnership option.
In addition, statistics show that 37% of attorneys in counsel positions and 57% of lawyers working in non-traditional track or staff attorney positions in law firms are women. These roles tend to offer a lawyer more flexibility in scheduling and impose fewer expectations to generate new business by building a client base. Similarly, positions as corporate in-house counsel are generally known to provide a more generous work/life balance than firm positions.
One issue that has become an increasing topic of conversation amongst lady lawyers is “Imposter Syndrome.” Imposter syndrome is a pattern in which one doubts one’s accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud despite external evidence of their competence. This syndrome is especially common among women in high-stress, high-achievement environments like the law. In recent years, law firms, state bar associations, and other legal organizations have begun initiatives to raise awareness about the psychological toll the practice of law takes on lawyers. Women who suffer from imposter syndrome should recognize that it is a common struggle for their peers and should feel comfortable talking with mentors, friends, or colleagues about these issues.
As mentioned above, women account for 24% of partner positions and the women who break the glass ceiling to attain those positions certainly bring to their firms a variety of strengths. One author shared her thoughts on nine qualities of female attorneys who break through the glass ceiling:
Simply put, women in the law who are willing to stand up for themselves succeed. They bring a unique perspective to their cases and are an incredibly valuable asset for a firm in situations where a client prefers a woman attorney. This is not to say that women bring a “better” perspective than men—just “different.” Lady lawyers who succeed are also some of the most supportive of their fellow women of the law, embracing the maxim: “Be the woman who fixes another woman’s crown without telling the world that it was crooked.”
Watts Guerra LLP is a firm of highly experienced trial lawyers with a nationwide practice handling some of the largest catastrophic injury and death, product liability, commercial litigation, and mass tort cases in the country. Watts Guerra also understands and fully embraces the role women play in the law firm environment. The firm has seventeen partners, three associates, and six attorneys who are of counsel. Of those, five partners, all three associates, and one of counsel attorney are women. The attorneys at Watts Guerra are afforded equal opportunities, regardless of gender, and the firm environment is collegial, fostering growth and inclusivity.
Watts Guerra LLP
Four Dominion Drive, Bldg. 3, Suite 100
San Antonio, Texas 78257
Phone: (210) 447-0500