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Comments by YACCS
Sunday, March 19, 2006

Why don't they make partner

Why Do So Few Women Reach the Top of Big Law Firms?

HUNDREDS of feet above Manhattan, the reception area of Proskauer Rose's headquarters boasts all of the muscular, streamlined ornamentation that symbolizes authority and power in a big city law firm — modern art, contemporary furniture, white marble floors, high ceilings and stunning views. The background music floating about this particular stage set is composed of the steady, reassuring cadences of talented, ambitious lawyers greeting their clients.

Bettina B. Plevan, a 60-year-old specialist in labor and employment law, has spent more than three decades at Proskauer navigating the professional riptides and intellectual cross-currents of firm life on her way to reeling in one of the legal world's most storied and most lucrative prizes: a partnership. Her corner office has evidence of the hard work that has gotten her here: stacks of legal documents sprout like small chimneys on her desk and floor, amid rows of black binders and brown accordion folders.

Compact, sharp-minded and direct, Ms. Plevan occasionally allows a knowing, engaging grin to wrap itself around her sentences as she shares her reasons for pursuing a partnership.

"I decided I wanted to be a partner shortly after I got here — by nature I have a lot of drive, I'm competitive and I have a lot of energy," she says. "For me, being a partner was a way in which my talents and skills could be recognized. And I wanted that recognition."

Ms. Plevan has that recognition. Besides the handsome salary and bragging rights accompanying the grueling hours and emotional juggling that constitute a partnership, she has earned ample plaudits from peers outside Proskauer. According to a small plaque, one among many stacked along her window, other lawyers around the country have voted her one of the "Best Lawyers in America" in each of the last 13 years.

Following in the footsteps of Elihu Root, Charles Evans Hughes, Whitney North Seymour Jr. and Cyrus R. Vance, Ms. Plevan is president of the New York City Bar Association, only the second woman to hold that position since the organization's founding in 1870. She has a job that makes her happy and reflects her sense of herself. She is an accomplished lawyer. She has arrived.

She also is an anomaly.

Although the nation's law schools for years have been graduating classes that are almost evenly split between men and women, and although firms are absorbing new associates in numbers that largely reflect that balance, something unusual happens to most women after they begin to climb into the upper tiers of law firms. They disappear.

According to the National Association for Law Placement, a trade group that provides career counseling to lawyers and law students, only about 17 percent of the partners at major law firms nationwide were women in 2005, a figure that has risen only slightly since 1995, when about 13 percent of partners were women.

Even those who have made it to the top of their profession say that the data shows that women's legal careers involve distinct, often insurmountable hurdles and that those hurdles remain misunderstood or underexamined.

"You have a given population of people who were significantly motivated to go through law school with a certain career goal in mind," says Ms. Plevan, who notes that Proskauer has always provided her with a welcoming professional home. "What de-motivates them to want to continue working in the law?"

Although women certainly leave firms to become more actively involved in child-rearing, recent detailed studies indicate that female lawyers often feel pushed into that choice and would prefer to maintain their careers and a family if a structure existed that allowed them to do so. Some analysts and many women who practice law say that having children isn't the primary reason most women leave law firms anyhow; most, they say, depart for other careers or for different ways to practice law.

"Firms want women to stay. Men at the firms want women to stay, and women want to stay. So why aren't they?" asks Karen M. Lockwood, a partner at Howrey in Washington. "Law firms are way beyond discrimination — this is about advancement and retention. Problems with advancement and retention are grounded in biases, not discrimination."

Lauren Stiller Rikleen, a 52-year-old partner in the Framingham, Mass., office of the Worcester, Mass., firm of Bowditch & Dewey, details the hurdles facing female lawyers in her recently published book "Ending the Gauntlet: Removing Barriers to Women's Success in the Law" (Thomson Legalworks, $25). In her book she writes that law firms need to reorganize if they want to encourage and retain women as partners, and that roadblocks — whether they be errant mentoring, opaque networking opportunities, low-grade case assignments or arbitrary male control of key management committees — should all be reviewed.

"Law firms like to talk about running the firm like a business and looking at the numbers, but they're running on an institutional model that's about 200 years old," she says. "Most law firms do a horrible job of managing their personnel, in terms of training them and communicating with them."

Ms. Rikleen, as well as many of the women she interviewed for her book, note how lonely life at a law firm can feel for women if they stay on the partnership track and find fewer women around them as they ascend. In her book, she writes about her early career: "I had very little help and no mentors. I saw other women arrive at the firm, struggle, and leave." Although she established a thriving environmental law practice and now finds her firm more welcoming, in the early days, "I never felt like I belonged," she writes

"I think diversity is a beneficial thing in an organization," she adds. "Without it, you have a loss of different points of view."

Bwaaaaah. I used to ask the same question about tech companies, why don't asians get promoted to managerial ranks in white owned firms? Why are there so few blacks and latinos?

The answer I came up with? They hire and fund the people who are like them.

This is all talk.

They don't want women as partners and women quickly realize that unless they swallow shit or find a mentor, they are never gonna make it. Their mistakes become magnified and their successes minimized.

I remember an old WaPo article about minority lawyers in big law firms who quit after a few years, realizing they aren't ever going to get the brass ring. So they strike out on their own.

What most women realize, like most minorities, is that the only way for them to become a star is either to become a prosecutor or go out on their own. Johnnie Cochran and Willie Gary weren't going to be head of any firm they didn't build on their own.

Unlike most companies, a law firm requires group approval, because a partner shares risk and reward. When your financial future on the line, you really don't want to take any extra risk. Your partners better be rock solid reliable. Given America's cultural biases, the more on the table, the less risk people take

posted by Steve @ 12:55:00 AM

12:55:00 AM

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