The NYT’s Timothy O’Brien has a long
article today – which immediately hit the top of the Most E-Mailed
List – headlined "Why Do So Few Women Reach the Top of Big Law Firms?"
O’Brien gives a comprehensive overview of the problem and possible causes.
But let me add my own, which is hinted at near the bottom of the piece:
Over the last two decades, as law firms have devoted themselves more keenly
to the bottom line, depression and dissatisfaction rates among both female
and male lawyers has grown, analysts say; many lawyers of both genders have
found their schedules and the nature of their work to be dispiriting.
"I see a lot of people who are distressed about where the profession
has gone," Ms. Rikleen says. "They don’t like being part of a billable-hour
production unit. They want more meaning out of their lives than that."
Let’s make a few assumptions here:
- Lawyers in big law firms are increasingly unhappy with their work.
- Most lawyers marry and have children.
- Most women marry a man who earns more than they do – this is true
even of high-earning women.
Do you see where I’m going here? If you’re a male lawyer with the potential
to make partner, you go for it, because you have a wife and kids to support.
If you’re a female lawyer with the potential to make partner, the chances are
that your husband is earning enough to support both you and the children. Which
gives you the opportunity to seek out more rewarding work and more time with
I can absolutely see why in such a situation there would be a shortage of female
law-firm partners. And in the real world, among my lawyer friends, something
very similar is happening. None of them, having spent time at a big
law firm, actually wants to make partner. Most want a less stressful life, often
as corporate counsel somewhere. The ones who stay at the law firms are the ones
with a family to support.
At the moment, it is very rare for a female lawyer to be the main breadwinner
in a family with children. Only when that becomes more common, is my guess,
will the number of female law-firm partners start to rise.