By Jean Boler |
I recently attended the 2017 Minnesota Women in the Law Conference, and was struck by how far we still have to go to catch up to male lawyers in pay and prestige. When I graduated from law school in the early 1980s, women had just surpassed 30% of law students (up from 14.4% in 1975). We newly-minted women lawyers talked enthusiastically about how women were going to change the legal culture so that it embraced family oriented, flexible work practices and a collaborative, empathetic approach to legal problem solving. Now, 35 years later, there are more women lawyers, law partners, and judges than ever, but rather than changing the practice, we are still trying to get our male colleagues to let us be full members of the club.
While women associates in law firms has grown to near parity, the number of equity and managing partners nationwide has stayed stubbornly under 20%. In judgeships, women do slightly better, in 2016, achieving 27% of all state and federal judgeships. Women lawyers have been narrowing the gender pay gap of the last decade, in 2015 making nearly 90 cents for every male lawyer’s dollar. Though that comparison fluctuates widely from year to year, with women lawyers making 79 cents for every male lawyer’s dollar in 2013.
It isn’t that women lawyers are working less. According to a 2012 study by Sky Analytics, female partners billed nearly a half-hour more daily than male partners. They are being consistently billed at lower rates, however. The same study found that on average, female partners billed at an hourly rate that was 10% lower than male partners, and the lower bill rate persisted for female associates. One explanation offered was that male dominated teams work on larger matters than female dominated teams. That just begs the question of how the men managed to snag those more lucrative complex matters.
At the conference, successful women talked about how they were navigating the still predominately male power structures in their firms. As one panel noted, if the current pace of women partnership over the past ten years continues, there won’t be 30% female equity partnership until 2181! Some women are carving out their own compensation niches within their firms, others are recruiting male mentors to help advocate for them, still others are working on communications strategies that are more direct, but don’t come off as bossy—since assertive women are characterized as bossy twice as often as men.
Maybe it should come as no surprise that a staunchly male dominated profession has not become female-friendly overnight. Still, the glacial pace of change has led some researchers to re-characterize the law firm glass ceiling as “impenetrable concrete.” Perhaps the best advice came from the keynote speaker, Laurie Robinson Haden, a senior VP at CBS and founder of Corporate Counsel Women of Color: “Act and take risks….Move out of your own way.” After all, 2181 is a very long time to wait.
Jean Boler is an attorney at Schaefer Halleen specializing in discrimination and harassment. She was one of the lead counsel Jenson v. Eveleth Mines, the first sexual harassment class action in the country, which later became the subject of the book Class Action and the movie North Country. Women who are courageous enough to step forward and challenge persistent discrimination in the legal and other fields will find willing and experienced advocates at Schaefer Halleen.