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September 16, 2009 10:15 PM

Bad Economy: A Boon for Women Lawyers?

Posted by Vivia Chen

Baby We visited the Pierre Hotel in Manhattan Tuesday for an event marking the 2009 edition of Working Mother magazine's "50 Best Law Firms for Women." Hosted by the magazine and Flex-Time Lawyers, the event brought together women law firm partners from around the country and an impressive list of general counsel (including Allstate's Michele Coleman Mayes, DuPont's Thomas Sager, Verizon's Randal S. Milch, Prudential Financial's Susan Blount, Dow Corning's Sue McDonnell, and MasterCard's Eileen Simon).

It was a celebratory affair, affirming the progress that's been made on the work/life balance front, while looking at the road ahead. It's a valuable initiative, for sure, but the event left us feeling a bit deflated.

For starters, we were surprised by the firms not in attendance (and not on this year's list). They included: Arnold & Porter; Cravath, Swaine & Moore; Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton; Bingham McCutchen; Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom; and Sullivan & Cromwell. Each of these firms made the list in 2008. We reached out to several of the absentees to ask why they were missing in action this year; we heard back from three. Arnold & Porter declined to comment. Cleary said it will get back to us. Bingham, through firm spokesperson Claire Papanastasiou, said the magazine changed its criteria this year, and that the firm likely "lost points" in its application when it left some questions unanswered for confidentiality reasons. (The application asks firms for information about flexibility, compensation, retention, and other policies. See more about the application process here.)

We asked Flex-Time Lawyers founder Deborah Epstein Henry about the missing firms. Did they decline to participate? Or did they simply fail to make the cut? Henry, who's been collaborating with Working Mother on this project for three years, declined to detail which firms did or did not apply for the 2009 initiative. She did say that the applicant pool this year (105 firms) dropped a bit from last year (115 firms).

Given the decrease in applicants and the absence of the premier firms named above, we're a bit skeptical about a key message delivered at Tuesday's event: that the economic downturn is a blessing in disguise for women. During a roundtable session, Henry and other participants argued that firms, faced with the economic pressures wrought by the financial crisis, might finally institutionalize part-time or reduced time lawyers, thus making those arrangements more acceptable. Working Mother also emphasized this idea in its August/September 2009 issue (which carries the list): "For working-mom lawyers, who've long sought more flexibility, this may be just the moment they've been waiting for.... Already, our winning firms have more lawyers working reduced hours (8 percent versus 5 percent nationwide)."

It's a good thought. And we, too, have questioned what the recession might mean for women lawyers, among others. We expected law firms to reconsider so much of their "business as usual," especially once the full force of the financial crisis hit late last year. But nearly a year later, we're still wondering whether law firms are on the brink of revolutionizing the workplace, or whether the status quo reigns. We're not convinced that more lawyers working reduced schedules signals meaningful change.

Another important idea raised by the event's organizers and participants is that clients could be enlisted as white knights to promote so-called women's issues. Indeed, the in-house lawyers at Tuesday’s gathering agreed that companies are way ahead of law firms in offering employees flexible working arrangements. As MasterCard senior associate general counsel Eileen Simon said, "there's not much face time required."

The hope was expressed that general counsel and in-house legal departments will push law firms to step up their efforts on this front, just as they have on diversity. That would also benefit clients, argued Henry, because clients suffer when firms lose valuable midlevel or senior associates for work/life balance reasons. But as several GCs pointed out, that disruption, particularly if it's not a partner departure (and most women who leave firms are not partners), is not really that devastating. DuPont's Sager said, "it's not a problem when it's an individual lawyer." Verizon's Milch echoed that point. When a midlevel lawyer leaves, "it's not so much a disruption," said Milch. "Firms are good at making sure that transitions are executed flawlessly."

Moreover, while the GCs were sympathetic to the work/life balance problem in law firms, we didn't get the impression that they were about to go to the mat on the issue. "It's hard for me to envision telling a law firm how to organize itself," said Milch. At best, he added, he would tell partners not to use clients as the pretext for keeping a rigid, traditional workplace model.

So, what's the upshot of all this?

It's optimistic to believe that most large law firms are rethinking the work/life balance equation during these hard times. Frankly, most firms today are focused on survival and on a need to bring in more business--they are not, it seems, focusing on the larger questions of the meaning of work and job satisfaction.

From where we sit, covering women in the profession for almost a decade, we don't see a revolution on the horizon. That said, increasingly--albeit slowly--some women have been able to stake out a viable career while fashioning their own flex-time arrangements. It's not a revolution, but a steady trickle.


Readers, we want to know what you think: Will women lawyers come out ahead post-recession? 

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Thank you for this great post. I am pleased to see that someone is scrutinizing this award. When you understand that this award is open to all law firms with 50+ attorneys, "Best" 50 out of 105 really doesn't have much significance, in my opinion. Another important point is that no women/mothers at these firms are interviewed to corroborate the information put forth by the firms, thus the distinction is unquestionably suspect. I would also be interested to know how many firms applied in the oft-touted first year this list was published.

I too am doubtful that the economy is having a positive impact on women in law firms. I am writing a piece on women who have been targeted for lay off under the allegedly neutral system of billable hours. When firms look at billable hours, this automatically has a disparate impact on women who have recently been on maternity leave (particularly because there is a demonstrable slow-down in work assigned prior to the leave beginning). I personally know of 3 women who were selected using this dubious criteria and I would like to speak to more.

Please contact me at [email protected] if you would like to share your story. Your identity and that of your former firm will be kept confidential if you so desire.

Kamee Verdrager
[email protected]

I'm very skeptical that firms are taking the recession as an opportunity to improve the work/life balance for attorneys. Instead, they seem to be scurrying to try to make as much money as they used to a couple years ago during the high-flying days. My firm is on the Working Mother list, but I'm not sure how it got there. I've known several associates who went on the part time program, only to find that there was extreme pressure to work full time hours anyway. When they worked as much as or more than full time associates, they were not compensated for it. Additionally, there are very few women partners at my firm, so there are very few role models for female associates. In terms of having children, most women either have kids while they are junior associates, and then leave, or they wait until they become partner, and have kids at age 38 - obviously not ideal. These firms are going to have to figure out a better way - the current structure is unrealistic for anyone who wants any type of work/life balance. I would accept a lower salary in a hearbeat if it truly meant less hours.

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