Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Women's Law Firms (Part II)

In my last post I discussed the rarity of women-owned law firms in the United States. While doing research about women-owned law firms, I came across firms that focus on women in a different way: they only serve female clients. In turn, I found a law firm that serves only men and began to question whether having gender-exclusive law firms is a good idea.

Two of the women-only law firms I came across practiced divorce and family law. The Hofheimer Family Law Firm in Virginia represents only women in divorce and custody cases. Hofheimer also claims to be the largest law firm in the United States that represents women exclusively. Hofheimer's staff is a mix of genders with eight attorneys and a support staff of 13.  DAWN, a law firm in Michigan, is also for women only. DAWN claims to be the original and oldest law firm for women in Michigan and states that while others have tried to do what they do, they are the "tried and true original." DAWN also represents women in divorce and other family law matters including domestic violence and wills. DAWN only has three attorneys, two men and one woman.

Not all for-women-only law firms practice divorce or family law. Kramer & Dunleavy in New York practice areas of law that can affect women in unique ways. These areas of law as described on their website include women's health issues (such as birth injuries and delayed diagnosis of breast cancer), family needs (such as car accidents and wrongful death), women's safety (such as dangerous drugs and sexual assault), and women's rights (wrongful termination and discrimination). Kramer & Dunleavy only have two attorneys, who are both female.

Potentially in response, men-only law firms are now popping up. One particular law firm, Kenny Leigh & Associates in Jacksonville, Florida, is one such law firm. Its slogan is "Men Only. Family Law Only." The slogan grabbed the attention of the Florida Bar which suggested Leigh review the ethics rules to ensure his slogan and practices were in compliance. As described in an article here, Leigh decided to represent men exclusively because he felt the family law system was biased against fathers. He also states that if he is forced to represent a female client, he will fight against it in court under an argument that such force is unconstitutional. Interestingly, Leigh's law firm has one women attorney and a support staff that is composed mostly of women.

While researching these law firms I began to wonder if they are acting ethically. California's Rules of Professional Conduct suggest that discriminating against clients based on gender is unethical. According to Rule 2-400, "in the management or operation of a law practice a member shall not unlawfully discriminate or knowingly permit unlawful discrimination on the basis ...(2) accepting or terminating representation of any client." It would seem that in California for-women-only and for-men-only law firms are unethical. However, under Rule 2-400 the State's Bar cannot take action until a court adjudicates a complaint of discrimination and finds that the attorney participated in unlawful conduct. While the Virginia State Bar does not have the same rule, it does state in its Principals of Professionalism that a lawyer shall "avoid all bigotry, discrimination, or prejudice." Florida's and Michigan's rules of conduct do not contain any similar language. It appears as though law firms in these states can continue to provide services exclusively to men or women without fear of professional discipline.

Nevertheless, the question remains whether gender exclusivity is a good thing for the legal profession. While in most divorces men and women are pitted against each other, should law firms increase the gender divide by heightening the difference between men and women? It feels as though these law firms are reinforcing the idea of essentialism- where men and women each have defined aspects that are essential to their beings. Such a viewpoint will inevitably not consider women and men who diverge from the alleged "essential" aspects of their genders. Yet, each person does deserve to have the best representation possible, and even if coming from an essentialist point of view, a law firm that is more aware of women's issues and needs is better than one that is completely unaware.

In addition, part of me believes there should be for-women-only law firms because such law firms represent a distinct group that the law does not always treat fairly and is underrepresented in the legal profession. Should men also have law firms that serve their interests exclusively if they dominate the legal profession? Maybe they should not as they already hold the power in the legal system. At the same time, each person should have the opportunity to be represented equally, regardless of gender, and if the best way to do that is through gender exclusive law firms, then maybe that is what our legal system needs.

While having law firms that serve only women may help to bring greater equality in legal outcomes for the clients of these firms, likely the better way to gain greater equality for women in the law is to have more women lawyers in women-owned law firms and positions of power. Many for-women-only law firms appear to have attorneys of both genders. As such, I am curious to see what the offices of these law firms look like. Do they cater to women in stereotypical ways with pink and purple furniture, accented with gossip magazines? Hopefully I will never be in a legal situation that would compel me to find out.


CET said...

I think it's very interesting that any business, especially a law firm, would narrow their business to only one gender. While it's true that men and women face different legal challenges, I don't see why a single law firm could not cater to all of them. I think having a variety of clients makes us better lawyers. We get exposed to a wide range of issues and this gives us new and different perspectives for future cases.

On the topic of women-only businesses, I am reminded of the gym where I was a member in high school. It was a women-only gym. I can get behind that idea as I remember feeling much more comfortable working out without worrying about male patrons staring.

Elizabeth said...

I don't think the idea of a gender-divided law firm is beneficial to anyone. That implies that law firms that serve everyone would not serve each gender equally well. At most, I can understand a women-only law firm in the areas of reproductive rights or women's rights, issues that do not really affect men. But this really just seems like a marketing tool to attract trust from women who have been hurt and may not trust men.

It is highly problematic to have a men-only firm. It sounds like the attorney you mentioned has quite a chip on his shoulder. It just reminds me of the men's rights movement, which is very intertwined with family law ( Supporters of men's rights feel like they are getting screwed by the court system so they band together to disparage all women. I do not think it is ethical for an attorney to encourage this degradation of women through creating a men-only law firm.