Adventures in Women’s Lib: I’d Rather Take Cash, Thank You
The legal trade was one of the last holdouts against women’s encroachment on the “man’s world,” and litigation, in particular, was still decidedly a sausage fest. If I went to a deposition, I was usually the only woman in the conference room, apart from the stenographer and maybe the witness. If I entered a courthouse through the entrance reserved for attorneys, the court officer would often gruffly order me into the public line before I had a chance to display my court ID. In the courthouse, I was clearly a member of a small minority. There were still, at that time, old-school gentlemen-lawyers shuffling to and fro, cranky old men who started practicing back in the 1940’s, when some states still didn’t allow women to be admitted to the bar at all, or even to sit on juries. When they happened to be in a good mood, these men would patronize and condescend to you in truly quaint ways, that would seem tacky even in a plot for Mad Men. But most of the time, they were cross, loudly complaining about all these girls in the courthouse and bemoaning the death of law as a dignified profession.
How the world has changed, and how quickly!
To my untrained eye today, women make up about half of lawyers in the courthouse. Depositions where all lawyers present are female, are not uncommon. And, women’s representation among law students is nearly level with men’s.
But if all this suggests that the battle for equality has been won, think again — because other changes have happened in the legal field, as well. There was once a time, not too long ago, when being a lawyer meant having a high-paying job and great career prospects. This is no longer the case. There has never been a worse time to go into law than now. Only slightly more than half of all new graduates find themselves employed as lawyers full-time nine months after graduation; twenty-eight percent are unemployed or working part-time. (Now, true, there is nuance behind the numbers: about a quarter of law school graduates don’t pass the bar; and unlike is the case with, say, medical schools, law schools include a staggering number of truly shitty diploma mills. But even taking these factors into account, the statistic is still grim.) Even those graduates lucky enough to find full-time employment in their field aren’t exactly shoveling doubloons into their coffers: 42% of new lawyers earn $60K or less annually (which is pretty bad, when you take into account the cost of legal education, and the investment of time and effort required). And as if that wasn’t bad enough, starting salaries are rapidly falling.
So what does women’s increased participation mean against this backdrop? I think it goes without saying that women dominate professions that are poorly paid and not particularly prestigious. Victoria Pynchon of Forbes notices this trend and wonders if law is perhaps becoming a typical “woman’s job”. I am not sure I agree with her perception of the-cause-and-effect side of things (I am more inclined to think that the high rate of unemployment and low incomes are driving men away from law and feeding the perception that this is a job particularly suitable for women, rather than women’s increased participation being the cause of the spiral); but I like how she notes that things at the top of the legal food chain don’t seem to be as gender-balanced as things at the bottom (the pay gap between male and female law partners is a whopping 46%). As these statistics demonstrate, women still make up less than ⅕ of law partners and are severely underrepresented in high-paying positions. So I think what’s happening here isn’t so much a transformation of the legal profession into a “woman’s job”, as the profession splitting into two distinct tiers, of which the bottom may very well become dominated by women within a generation or so, but the top — not so much.
I would agree that women don’t negotiate for compensation as aggressively as men do, to a large extent because women are still brought up to be conciliatory and accommodating. But it’s a lot more than that. Employers, for their part, expect women to accept less pay, often in return for intangibles such as “congenial office environment”, a chance to make one’s resume more attractive, and my personal favorite, “learning experience”. (Dear reader, if you can help it, never work for someone who has so little respect for your intelligence, he lists working your ass off as part of your compensation package.) Or quasi-intangibles, such as crappy health insurance that will take a big bite out of your already lean paycheck and won’t cover diddly squat. The idea that women should be happy to work for health benefits seems to enjoy particular traction, and especially when it comes to married women with children.
Things were already getting difficult for new lawyers when I started out, and my search for a first-year associate’s job was fairly stressful. One interview experience is particularly vivid in my memory. It was a second interview with a managing partner, who praised my credentials and my already substantial experience in the paper-drafting side of litigation, and who seemed eager to have me on board. However, when it came time to talk specifics, he gave me a number that was so shockingly low, it stunned me speechless. I came to the interview expecting to be low-balled; I didn’t expect to be insulted. After about ten seconds of uncomfortable silence, he pointed out that the firm offers a very friendly atmosphere and great learning opportunities.
“Look,” he said, “I know it’s not much [ha! understatement of the century], but we offer a great health plan. And that might be important to someone like you. That is … I mean, someone young, someone who might want to, you know, start a family at some point. Just out of curiousity, what does your husband do for a living?”(*)
I responded frankly that the number he quoted was utterly unacceptable, great benefits and friendly co-workers notwithstanding, and asked if the firm had anything else to offer.
“Oh, I should tell you right off the bat,” he said, “We don’t really promote from within. All senior attorneys are lateral hires. You understand what I mean?”
Yeah, I get it. I’m one of a bunch of women under thirty, who will be hired to work like mules for health insurance and lunch money. I understand that I will be expected to work from about 8:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., plus every other Saturday — unless there is a trial, in which case it’s consecutive fourteen-hour days until it’s over. And the opportunity to work hard all these long hours will totally offset the shit pay, not to mention the health plan, which will cover about 70% of arbitrarily determined “market rates” for “covered services” — after I first pay about $10K per year out of pocket in premiums, deductibles and co-pays. Plus, I’ll get a “friendly office environment”, which means your “lateral hires” will behave like perfect gentlemen and won’t comment on my tits within earshot. Anything else? Oh, right. My married state means I don’t really need to get paid for work, because I already have a husband to pay my Bergdorf bills. Though I’m pretty sure no one has ever insinuated to him that he can do with less money because he has a wife.
Ultimately, what worked for me was telling prospective employers that I am done working for my resume, and that I only care about tangible benefits: salary, paid vacation days, billing requirements. Still, I launched my career at a better time. Since then, the relentless trend that seems to be creating a whole underclass of lawyers, bearing all the stresses and hardships of the legal profession while enjoying none of the benefits, has worked against women, even as they entered the field in record numbers.
In other words, don’t rest on your laurels just yet, ladies.
(*)”Holy shit, isn’t it illegal to say things like that?” you might ask. Technically, yes, but I’ve heard blatantly illegal interview questions and statements even from lawyers who do employment discrimination law. Because as a practical matter, what am I gonna do, sue? An employment discrimination lawsuit, especially one that’s based on something other than race, is an extraordinarily difficult uphill battle, and whether you win or lose, it’s pretty much a career-ender. Sue, and you’ll never get another job in this town again. Moreover, depending on the publicity it generates, other towns may become off-limits, too. So most women just suck it up, as did I.