Insights into career moves by women lawyers

A recent study reported in Recasting the Brass Ring: Deconstructing and Reconstructing Workplace Opportunities For Women Lawyers (29 Capital University Law Review 923 (2002)) shows women move more often than men, women move earlier in their careers than men and women are more likely than men to make moves characterized as horizontal or even downwards. In analyzing workplace opportunities for women lawyers, the authors, Nancy J. Reichman (Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Denver) and Joyce S. Sterling (Professor of Law, University of Denver), found that women continue to face numerous barriers, particularly in a law firm setting. These concerns arise for women in an environment that undervalues their work, misreads their commitment and thwarts effective mentoring. The authors conclude that women tend to be disadvantaged when it comes to accumulating the professional assets needed for advancement.

When women of childbearing age leave, the universal conclusion is that they do so because they want to devote more time to their family. The concept of choice is more complex in how it is constructed and interpreted, in how it is informed by options at home and in the workplace and how it is influenced by institutional pressures. The central question the authors attempted to analyze was "In short, what do choices really mean in the decision to leave a position in private law practice?"

To conduct the study, the authors evaluated a "snapshot" of Denver law practice for two years involving 100 attorneys--52 women and 48 men. Key findings are:

* Within one year, 15 percent of the attorneys overall had moved--13 percent of the men and 21 percent of the women.

* Within two years, 18.6 percent of men associates moved versus 27.6 percent of women associates.

* 46 percent of women made their first firm move within two years versus 14 percent of men.

In seeking to understand these differences, the authors interviewed the study group about their everyday experiences and understandings of the work environment. The authors contend that a "gendered organization" makes achievement of three professional assets problematic: (1) rewarded work; (2) expressed commitment; and (3) effective mentoring. In the study, the authors make numerous interesting observations including:

* Rather than the glass ceiling, the appropriate metaphor might be "sticky" floor where gendered work practices and compensation systems do not allow women attorneys to progress.

* Even when they are willing to come in at night and work around the clock, women report that firms rely on stereotypes and assume that they will not be available or should not be available.

* Women have more difficulty finding a mentor with whom they can develop rapport and who move beyond the role of teacher to become advocates and career launchers.

* Notwithstanding their increasing presence in the legal profession, women can only rise to the top of the hierarchy when law firms rework the path to partnership.

The authors conclude that women can only rise "to the top of hierarchy" when firms rework the path to partnership. These changes include throwing out traditional definitions of commitment to lawyering, adopting or perhaps re-adopting team work that rewards the team instead of the individual lawyer, allowing greater flexibility in scheduling, and the ability to take leaves from work (for family or other reasons) without running up against a system that permanently disadvantages those who choose, in the words of MIT Professor of Management Lotte Bailyn, to "Break the Mold."

To view another summary of this study and related law review article, visit the American Bar Foundation at <> for the article entitled Opting Out: Women Lawyers, Gendered Law Firms and the Context of Choice, Volume 14, Number 2, Spring 2003 of Researching Law: An ABF Update.


E. Lynn Grayson is a partner with Jenner & Block in Chicago.

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September 2003Volume 9Number 1