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Gender Matters

A recent survey revealed that the average net income for Colorado's full-time women attorneys was only 59 percent of that of their male peers. Photo: Michael Richmond

What’s happening with women lawyers these days is ironic — ironic in the way doctors working for a company that doesn’t provide health care benefits is ironic. For although the nation’s 250,000 female attorneys work in a profession that champions justice for others, many report that their own employers treat them inequitably every day. Women say they are paid less than men, receive fewer opportunities to succeed or to meet people who can help them build their careers, and are penalized severely if they try to balance work life and family — all of which combine to create a work environment far different from the one most envisioned when they entered law school.

The issue is serious enough to raise red flags at the American Bar Association and to prompt the National Women’s Bar Association to hold a summit aptly titled Keeping Her in Her Place: New Challenges to the Integration of Women in the Profession.

While several organizations have documented the manner in which women receive disparate treatment, DU law Prof. Joyce Sterling and sociology Assoc. Prof. Nancy Reichman are at the forefront of research on the impact that inequality has on women’s short- and long-term career decisions. In 1996-98, and again in 2001-04, the two conducted in-depth interviews with 100 full-time, private-practice attorneys in the Denver metro area and analyzed their career histories. The results are two comprehensive sociological studies, 1998’s Gender Penalties and 2004’s Gender Penalties Revisited, that shed light on the role that gender bias, perceived and real, has on women’s law careers.

A continuing disparity

The professors found that in addition to being paid less, women attorneys change firms earlier and more often than men, are less likely to make partner and are more likely to leave the profession sooner — either by changing careers, choosing to stay home with children or retiring earlier — than their male counterparts.

What’s more, Reichman and Sterling report that there has been little, if any, improvement in women’s income inequality since the Gender Penalties research began almost 10 years ago. The professors cite two key benchmarks: a 1993 Colorado Bar Association economic survey that revealed that the average net income for Colorado’s full-time women attorneys was only 59 percent of that of their male peers, and a follow-up survey in 2000 that showed the income gap had closed by a penny.

“Having written the first report, talked to law firms and talked at Bar Association meetings, Nancy and I felt that, for sure, the disparity would have disappeared or decreased by 2000,” Sterling says. “Well, it did decrease — by one cent. We were perplexed. When we looked at comparisons by length of practice, by size of practice, by position in practice, things hadn’t gotten any better. That’s when we said, let’s go out and find our 100 people again and see what has happened to them.”

In 2000, the professors submitted a proposal to the Colorado Women’s Bar Association Foundation to continue their research. They received a $25,000 grant from the foundation, plus a $25,000 grant from DU’s Hughes-Ruud Research and Development Fund. DU’s Sturm College of Law also gave Sterling an in-kind contribution of time off to conduct her research.

Over the next three years, the professors were able to contact 97 of the original 100 research participants. As with the previous study, Reichman and Sterling conducted each interview and analyzed the results themselves. Early in the process, they realized that gender bias impacts much more than compensation.

For instance, of the attorneys who were associates with at least five years of experience in 1996, 25 percent of the men and 18 percent of the women had been promoted to partner at their firm. Forty-two percent of the men moved to another firm and became partners, while 24 percent of the women achieved the same. Perhaps most alarmingly, 18 percent of the women stayed at their firm without being promoted while another 18 percent left law or are now inactive in the profession. No men involved in the study are in either of the latter categories.

In addition, men overall were 20 percent more likely to be highly satisfied with their compensation, 36 percent more likely to be highly satisfied with opportunities for advancement and compensation, and 18 percent more likely to be highly satisfied with their relationships at work. Women, on the other hand, were 32 percent more likely to have changed firms by their second year of practice and 19 percent less likely to cite new law career opportunities as the reason for their last move.

“Our original purpose was to look at the income disparity between men and women attorneys and change it,” Sterling says. “That purpose changed over time as it became clear that the careers of men and women lawyers are very different. Our goal now is to describe the evolution of those careers.”

“What’s most exciting is to look at the differences in career trajectories between men and women and to ask important questions about how they experience the legal profession both in terms of the places they go and in the opportunities for change that are available,” Reichman adds. “We’ve learned that men’s careers are more likely to look like each other across generations. Women’s careers are harder to map because younger women are so different than their older counterparts in how they start, their level of movement and where they seem to be going.”

Reichman says a key reason for this difference is that when women began to enter law school in large numbers in the ’70s, they believed work environments should be gender blind or gender neutral.

“There’s a different way of approaching work today,” Reichman says. “Now we recognize that gender matters. We need to work with those differences so the most talented people enter the law and so we don’t lose people because the profession is stuck in a certain way of doing things.”

Both Reichman and Sterling acknowledge that renovating the legal profession’s structure will be difficult, but, they say, for women, the implications of not changing are severe.

“The concept of a profession, be it medicine, law or clergy, is fairly gendered in terms of what it expects,” Reichman says. “Traditional professions are built around certain models of work. Maintaining relationships between professional and client is not easy if you’re taking care of children.”

But former Colorado Women’s Bar Association President Pamela Mackey says learning how to maintain those worker-client relationships is exactly what women need to do if they want to succeed.

“What feminists would say is that we have to make the practice of law more family friendly. Not necessarily more woman-friendly, but more family friendly,” Mackey says. “That may be, but I don’t think it’s going to happen. I think there are very hard choices to make.”

Mackey, a mother of two, is a shareholder in Haddon, Morgan, Mueller, Jordan, Mackey & Foreman P.C., the largest criminal defense firm in the Rocky Mountain region. In 2004, she gained national prominence as lead attorney for basketball player Kobe Bryant’s legal defense team.

“My practice is extremely demanding,” Mackey says. “If someone calls at two in the morning and they want out of jail, I can’t say, ‘I have to get my kids off to school; I’ll see you around 10.'”

A lot of female attorneys, Mackey says, want to be able to go on the “mommy track.” “They want to be able to work more sane hours. They want a more balanced life,” she says, noting that those goals are often out of step with the demands of the profession.

“Women don’t find themselves in positions of power after 20 years because they’re not practicing law anymore,” Mackey adds. “Then, you get into the question of the chicken and the egg.”

The debate raises the issue of whether there is a compelling reason for law firms to encourage women to enter and stay in the profession.

Reichman and Sterling think there is.

It has to do with the bottom line.

“Clients today aren’t loyal,” Sterling says. “When a senior partner retires, clients are likely to interview new firms, change firms or split their business between firms. That didn’t happen in the ’70s and ’80s.”

And although men fare better in building the professional networks or “social capital” needed to find mentors, garner referrals and lure in new clients, women may have an edge in retaining existing business.

“One thing women say is that they are very good at the care-and-feeding of clients,” Sterling says. “They may not do a good job of self-advertising — promoting themselves and their accomplishments — but they do their work and keep clients informed of what’s happening with their cases. Clients, in turn, are willing to provide additional business. As the market continues to evolve, retention will have more bottom line value, and firms will need to change they way they reward the people who retain their customers.”

Equally important, though, is the need for women to re-examine their own approach to their careers.

“I would love to give a copy of the report to every woman who graduates from law school and say, ‘Use it wisely,'” Reichman says.

One issue she’d ask women to consider is the drawback of leaving a firm within one or two years. Even though the Gender Penalties women said they could tell when a firm wasn’t a good fit, Reichman and Sterling say such early departure happens far too soon for women to have received meaningful feedback and long before partnership decisions, which can take up to 10 years, are actually made.

“The problem is that there is a lack of a script for women and a lack of women to show them the ropes,” Mackey says. “My advice is to hang in there. What I mistook for many, many years as gender discrimination, I’ve become more convinced was age discrimination. I was just too young.”

Sterling says women should also be more open about the real reasons they choose to leave a firm. Many of the women who participated in Gender Penalties said they used “family issues” as a non-threatening explanation when asked why they quit or changed careers. While that explanation allowed them to leave without burning bridges, Sterling says it also perpetuated stereotypes about female employees, masked ongoing problems and let employers off the hook.

Sterling and Reichman have no plans to issue another iteration of the Gender Penalties research, although a book is forthcoming. Both, however, continue to study the sociology of law. In November 2004, Sterling issued the first report on a national longitudinal study called After the JD. Reichman is in the preliminary stages of a study that looks at the latter stages of attorneys’ careers.

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