Brought to you by the Real Law Editorial Team
In her departure email, she referred to herself as simply “Ms. X.” Many of her coworkers knew who she was and, probably, why she was leaving the prestigious global law firm, but summarizing her decision under the guise of anonymity gave added weight to her reasons and made her personal story seem more universal. After chronicling a typical day in her life, which started with her infant child waking her at 4 A.M. and ended well past midnight after an evening of office work, the publicly unidentified lawyer admitted that she could no longer “simultaneously meet the demands of career and family.” Sadly, she was giving up the practice of law.
Such stories are a heartbreaking reminder that being a lawyer is often as much a test of willpower and endurance as it is about possessing legal knowledge and skill. And while balancing difficult work-life choices is not a phenomenon experienced only by women in the legal profession, the demands made on female lawyers—particularly those working in Big Law—can too often severely limit or prematurely end promising careers.
Making Strides, But Still Falling Short
Indeed, the numbers tell an unsettling story. For example, during most of the 20 years that the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) has been compiling demographic statistics, law firms have made “steady, if somewhat slow progress” in increasing the numbers of women in both partner and associate ranks; however, at the same time, women are still significantly under-represented in the profession generally and in partner positions and the judiciary, according to a February 2013 update from the American Bar Association (ABA). The same report confirms what women have argued for years—that a pay gap continues to result in their earning significantly less than their male counterparts.
Taking Action—One Day at a Time
All that should put added attention on this year’s International Women’s Day on March 8. The United Nations theme for the annual day focuses on ending violence against women, but other groups around the world choose complementary themes to reflect global, national and local issues. In the United States, the theme is “The Gender Agenda: Gaining Momentum.” Its purpose is to celebrate the achievements of women “while remaining vigilant and tenacious for further sustainable change.”
That’s a goal that Laurel G. Bellows, a principal in The Bellows Law Group, P.C., wholeheartedly endorses every day and promotes on behalf of the profession she represents as current president of the ABA. “While the overt discrimination women once faced has, for the most part, disappeared, a hidden gender bias remains,” says Bellows, who has made gender equity one of her priorities. “Moving forward with an action agenda right now is essential if we are to achieve equality for women,” she declares.
To that end, under Bellows’ guidance the association’s Task Force on Gender Equity and Commission on Women in the Profession are spearheading projects to help women address inequities she describes as “pernicious.”
Toward an Equal-Opportunity Profession
But even with such energy devoted to the subject, ensuring that women and men share the same opportunities and rewards in the legal profession will not happen quickly or easily. Making partner is fraught with a variety of challenges that men don’t experience (remember Ms. X), and then it can be even more of an uphill battle to move from non-equity to equity partner, or “service partner” to esteemed “rainmaker” or another senior level within a firm. And if discrimination is the limiting factor, the challenges can be even greater when gender is combined with color, ethnicity, faith, sexual orientation and/or a disability, for example.
All that deserves more than a one-off International Women’s Day. But it’s worth having one if for no other reason than to call attention to the other hard work that goes on throughout the year in support of achieving an equal-opportunity legal profession.