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Girls, Interrupted: How Women Become Partners

More Women Partners? It's Up to Us to Fight.

"How many of you expect to be partners in ten years?" Every year, I ask my law students that question. The men all raise their hands. We stare at the one or two who don't. And every year, fewer and fewer women raise theirs. Last year I had five. This year, two. That's out of forty. So I wasn't surprised to read about a recent survey of major law firms, which found that the percentage of woman partners at these firms actually decreased last year. At the dawn of the 21st century, just over 15 percent of partners at big law firms are women.

What in the Name of Gloria Steinem Is Going On?

It's certainly not a pipeline issue. Today, nearly half of all law school graduates are women. And women have made up a third or more of all law school grads for almost twenty years. So what is the problem?

I know a lot of you won't want to hear this, but I believe women aren't trying hard enough. Don't get me wrong. I don't mean that women aren't working hard enough to become partners. Plenty of women do. I mean that we aren't working hard enough to change the system so that making partner becomes easier for more of us.

Here's what I'm getting at. Given what staying on the partner track requires, many woman law students and young lawyers see only two choices: struggle to balance an eighty-hour workweek with the demands of a family, or opt off the partner path altogether. To be sure, some extraordinary women manage to be partners and mothers, and some drop off the partner track for other reasons. But most of the women in my classes and in the studies I've seen say they're choosing not to pursue partnerdom because they don't want to sacrifice family life.

Faced with the choice between partner and mother, a generation of women is opting out (hence the statistics). They're sacrificing their highest aspirations before they've even begun their careers. They walk in the doors of their firms on their first day practically wearing signs that say "Don't invest too much in me. I'm not here for the long haul." "Who would you rather have working for you?" a man asked me at a recent forum. "A man who is determined to make it or a woman who is destined to leave?" I don't care what your gender politics are. The answer is obvious.

So What Should Women Do?

We need to fight for a third choice. Instead of resigning ourselves to the status quo, we need to work harder to make the partner track more compatible with family life.

The things we need to push for aren't complicated or new. I'm talking about encouraging firms to create or expand part-time, flextime and job-sharing programs. It wouldn't hurt, either, to advocate for new or expanded mentoring programs, so woman partners can show younger colleagues the way to the top. You might be surprised how interested quality law firms are in making these changes. But reforms won't be made—certainly not as fast as they ought to be made—unless we push. Institutional inertia happens.

How can you bring about these changes? Remember: Law students are oxygen to firms. You have power (at least until you say yes). In interviews, ask the kinds of questions that make firms realize they're going to have to update their employment practices if they want to attract and keep the best students. Ask to speak to the woman partners. Ask to speak to the part-time partners.

On campus, think collectively. Form a task force on women's advancement. Conduct and send out surveys on the promotion and retention of female associates. Talk to firms such as Pillsbury Winthrop, Hogan & Hartson, and Debevoise & Plimpton, which have earned a reputation for promoting women and supporting flexibility. Find out what they do right. While you're at it, ask men to join the cause—they don't want to miss out on family life any more than women do. "We don't have any choice," male students tell me every year. "Men's lives have changed even less than women's." Will any one of these steps change things? Maybe, maybe not. But taken together, they'll absolutely make a difference.

In the first phase of the women's movement, women gained simple access to law firms and other legal institutions. Now that we've fought our way in, it's time to rearrange the furniture a little.

Someday, you might help a woman make partner. Someday, that woman might be you.

Brought to you courtesy of JD Jungle Magazine

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