Progress For Women In The Legal Profession Is Moving At A Glacial Pace

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ATL_Lawline_March-300×200It’s Women’s History Month. Is there much to celebrate? Apparently only incrementalism is going to move the parity needle, not that we wouldn’t like it to be way faster, but that’s how our profession seems to work, like it or not.

Just one example: out of all the Fortune 500 companies, only 43 general counsels (or whatever name you choose to use) are women. By my calculation, that represents less than 10%. I don’t think that it is a stellar statistic almost halfway through the third decade of the 21st century. Anyone disagree? I thought not.

Everyone agrees that there is still much work for women to do, but I am tired of the same old platitudes about what to do and how to do it. All you have to do is read any recent survey of how hard it is for women to succeed at the top, whether it’s a law firm or corporate law department. Granted that the numbers are way better than 20, even 10 years ago, but we are not there yet, despite concerted efforts. Perhaps if men could bear children and then be the sandwiches between child care and elder care, progress for women lawyers could be a lot faster.

The second annual MCCA/Winston & Strawn General Counsel in the Fortune 500 Survey comments: “Leadership skills, visibility, and the lack of emphasis by corporations on hiring women are some of the remaining obstacles.” Calling Captain Obvious!

One suggestion: “Women who want to become GCs should seek out more training, mentoring and education, specifically business training.” But do all women who want to be GCs also need to have MBAs to be considered qualified for GC positions? Let’s think about the debt load (assuming no trust fund babies, parents willing to underwrite all the education, or being really lucky at lottery scratchers.) Four years of college, three years of law school, and then another two for an MBA. Ka-ching!

But wait! There’s more! From the survey: “Another female general counsel who responded to the survey said that the board of directors needed to be more accepting of women as general counsel. And women must work harder to overcome the perception that they are not “technologically savvy.” She recommended that women seek out positions on board of directors and for the media to promote the achievements of women in high tech and dot com companies. Echoing that suggestion, another woman general counsel said in the survey that women in nontraditional roles, such as in manufacturing companies, should seek out more press attention.” As if we don’t already. We do that. You can audition all you want, but you may not get any callbacks. Why not?

Yes, there should be more women on corporate boards, and not just on nonprofit boards. Women need to be on Fortune 500 boards, on the compensation committee, audit committee, and other committees that command the respect and attention of CEOs, other board members, institutional investors, and the like.

We are still often just window dressing. The California law that mandated a certain  percentage of women on corporate boards headquartered here is now enmeshed in litigation, testing its constitutionality.

Women rise to the top and then, poof, they leave to pursue “other opportunities” or the equally insincere phrase “to spend more time with their families.” We’ve all read that phrase or had it applied to ourselves.

But it’s not just our profession that diminishes women’s contributions. I’m sure that every woman lawyer knows at least one woman in another field, just as talented and brilliant as her male counterparts, who has been screwed over professionally. No surprise there.

It happens in business, academia, medicine, science, architecture, any field in which the presence of women, just as smart and capable, has grown. A new book, “The Exceptions: Nancy Hopkins, MIT and the Fight for Women in Science,” by Kate Zernike, depicts the epic battle for gender equality at MIT. Sound familiar?

Hopkins was denied lab space, received less grant funding, and was the target of inappropriate sexual behavior. Men tried to appropriate her work. Just like in our profession, especially for those of us who came into the profession 40 or 50 years ago, Hopkins and other women scientists at MIT were marginalized, accused of not working as hard, not being as smart. They suffered a myriad of other slights.

When MIT’s women scientists banded together, the school admitted in 1999 that it had discriminated against its women scientists. What a surprise!

Some things haven’t changed. Women lawyer attrition should concern all of us. We can’t stop pushing forward. “Good enough” is not good enough. We can’t let our guard down. We mustn’t settle. Look at the still dismal numbers of women equity partners in Biglaw, look at the dismal percentage of women general counsels in Fortune 500 companies. Look at women leaving the profession for any number of reasons. I had hoped more than 40 years ago that there would be parity today. Ha!

This may be Women’s History Month but women’s history, past and present, is still replete with the same old crap. There’s no question that women lawyers have progressed, but this old lady lawyer is not at all ready to sing along with Kool and the Gang.


old lady lawyer elderly woman grandmother grandma laptop computerJill Switzer has been an active member of the State Bar of California for over 40 years. She remembers practicing law in a kinder, gentler time. She’s had a diverse legal career, including stints as a deputy district attorney, a solo practice, and several senior in-house gigs. She now mediates full-time, which gives her the opportunity to see dinosaurs, millennials, and those in-between interact — it’s not always civil. You can reach her by email at [email protected].

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