How Young Women Are Succeeding in BigLaw
1:30 pm, March 12th | by Colette McIntyre
Contrary to what Legally Blonde (the movie, not the musical, because I’m an adult) taught me, female lawyers don’t wake up to the joyful strains of Hoku every morning. They rarely have to fake their own deaths; and hallucinating a dancing, half-naked baby? Not the norm! In fact, the general consensus is that being a female lawyer is a pretty miserable, thankless existence, especially when said lawyer works in a large firm. According to a 2012 study by the National Association of Women Lawyers, only four percent of the 200 firms surveyed had female managing partners. While seventy percent of staff lawyers were female, women only made up about fifteen percent of equity partnerships, a number that remained stagnant between 2009 and 2012. The NAWL study concluded that women lawyers are routinely, and disproportionately, disadvantaged.
Is being a large firm female lawyer all just one big bummer? Not necessarily; despite the gender discrepancy in firm leadership roles, some women are facing the challenging environment head on, reaching out to fellow women for assistance, advice, and camaraderie. Forbes interviewed young female lawyers at two AmLaw100 firms — Latham & Watkins and Proskauer, Rose — and they offered a different perspective from NAWL’s numbers.
Katherine Larkin-Wong, a second year lawyer at Latham & Watkins and the President of Ms. J.D, a non-profit geared to help women lawyers achieve parity in the legal world, found that working in BigLaw “means world-class training, cutting edge cases, the chance to quickly develop expertise, the support to do influential pro bono work, economic stability and, perhaps most importantly, the ability to leverage her firm’s resources to create a platform for her own personal leadership growth.” Kristine Huggins, a fifth year associate at Proskauer and co-chair of its Women’s Alliance, argues that “help from others” is the key to overcoming gender discrimination in the law profession; Huggins received help herself from an early female partner at Proskauer whom she met while working for the New York City Bar Association. Huggins and female partner stayed in touch and through that connection the recent law grad was informed of a job opportunity at Proskauer.
BigLaw doesn’t have to be incompatible with a family life: a senior association at Latham became pregnant with twins after four years at the firm but, as she tells it, she never doubted her ability to be a working mother. “I just didn’t let it create doubt in me,” she told Forbes. “I’d seen other people do it and it helped to have a working mother in my practice group. She was very candid with me – willing to share the good, the bad and the ugly. And the good far outweighed the bad.” The senior associate goes on to emphasize that new telecommunication technologies allowed her the flexibility to work from home, a vital resource in her eyes, and a timely point considering the controversy generated by Yahoo!’s recent work-at-home ban.
The statistics in BigLaw aren’t all bad: while women owners in the AmLaw100 remain in the depressingly low teens, over twenty-three percent of all equity partners at BigLaw firm Wilmer Hale are women and at least 20 percent of all equity partners at six other AmLaw100 firms are too.
As these young female lawyers’ comments suggest, the key to finding success in BigLaw isn’t just to “lean in” — women lawyers also have to lean together. Women can’t “pretend success is not a group effort”; female lawyers must help each other out of low-status roles and into reconceptualized career arcs.