Has the Summer of Powerful Women Left BigLaw Behind?


While this may be the summer of female empowerment—with Beyonce, Taylor Swift, and Barbie dominating the charts and spurring the economy as a result—the mood in BigLaw is quite different. This is confounding given that, during the pandemic, there was so much focus on the unfair burdens placed on female lawyers, and the discrimination they disproportionately face.

I talk to lawyers all day. It’s literally my job. I am a woman who used to litigate. I’ve found that in my perch as a recruiter, there are some persistent problems for women in BigLaw, even in a post-MeToo landscape.

Some of the things that happen to the women I talk to are things you could categorize as “innocent mistakes,” although that phrasing takes the onus off the doer to adjust his expectations. Some are structural problems with BigLaw that don’t work for people who carry babies. Others are beyond the pale.

Nevertheless, I hope change is on the way. Women continue to outnumber men in law school enrollment, so the future leans in women’s favor. But waiting for the scales to tip as more women become partners is not a complete solution—particularly considering how few women currently make it to partnership.

In a world where strong female icons dominated popular culture this summer, it’s far past time for the legal profession to purge itself of outdated attitudes towards women and families. Here are three categories where I’ve heard from my clients that law is jaw-droppingly behind in gender equality.

Innocent Mistakes

Something I hear far too often from female associates—and even partners—is that they are relied upon to take the notes in a meeting. It’s such a small thing to the person making the assumption, and such a chore for the woman being asked once again to do it.

Another thing I frequently hear from female lawyers is that opposing counsel in meetings presumes she is the paralegal or legal assistant.

“I was horrified,” a female counsel reported to me, “when a male partner on the other side kept referring questions on our call to the male associate who is literally 6 years below me.” She was particularly galled since the partner had researched the background of the male associate and knew they had gone to the same law school. So, he was more than likely aware than she was the senior presence on the call.

To call these “mistakes” innocent doesn’t give enough credit to the people committing these acts: They’re smart, hard-working people, and we can expect better from them.

Punished for Having a Uterus

When a single 28-year-old female lawyer I worked with resigned to go to more of a “lifestyle” practice at a different firm, she was met with incredulity by the male partner in charge of her team.

She was mocked with, “Will your ticking baby clock allow you to finish your notice period, or will you need to leave sooner?” She called me crying, I called HR as her agent at her request, and she never went back to that office. The partner still runs that team.

Women with kids regularly tell me that partners are much harder on them since they came back from parental leave, or since they became pregnant. In one case, the partner was going to be a senior female lawyer’s sponsor, until he repeatedly asked her if she had “baby brain” when she returned from her leave. The mistake that he perceived wasn’t her error, but was actually because he hadn’t kept up with email traffic from the client.

Beyond the Pale

I was speaking to a female associate who expressed frustration that, while traveling with a whole team from her office for a trial, she was the only lawyer not invited into the partner’s room for a cocktail.

First, no partner should be hosting associates of any gender identity in his room. Second, there is a specious assumption here that it is a “risk” to invite a woman to a social event, since she will potentially file a false sexual harassment claim. But by setting up an event like this, the partner was discriminating against the female associate.

One in three female legal professionals report experiencing sexual harassment directly. It’s not a rare, lightning strike situation. I saw it when I was practicing. I also experienced it.

It can manifest in so many different ways—lewd comments played off as jokes that a woman should be “cool enough” to laugh at. Anecdotally among my contacts, it appears that inappropriate, gendered comments actually increased during the pandemic, with more male partners Zooming with female colleagues on their team in what felt like a more intimate home-to-home interaction.

As the emails released as part of the now-renamed Berber-Ranen show, partners do it in writing. One of the partners referred to women as “c---s” and referred to a judge as “sugar t—s.” Another email between them read “kill her with anal penetration.” It was about an associate they were working with.

If this is how actual labor and employment partners speak about women in writing imagine what’s being said by others?

BigLaw needs to change now, in order to support the women already in its ranks. This needs to happen at a policy level—such as by encouraging all parents to take leave after the birth of a child—and on an individual level—by correcting micro-aggressions as they occur.

As of now, about 23% of equity partners are female. There’s a long way to go to parity. Not only is meaningful change simply the right thing to do, it’s also the only way our profession moves forward.


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