Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Women's law firms (Part 1)

As a part of my duties as a legal assistant before I came to law school, I sent a congratulatory letter to a law firm in Oakland on behalf of my female boss. The law firm had not realized a victory; rather my boss wanted to congratulate the law firm because it had opened as an all-women law firm. This memory made me curious about women-run law firms and what they mean for women's struggle to gain greater parity in the legal profession.

According to an article here from 2008, women-owned law firms are rare nationwide.  In an Internet search to find women-only law firms I came up with mixed results. It was difficult to find law firms like Schroder, Joseph & Associates, LLP or C2 Law, where all of the attorneys (and sometimes all the support staff) were women. As a side note, Schroder, Joseph & Associates, LLP gained some notoriety a few years ago for a series of provocative ads that used slogans like "Labor Pains? Talk to us. (We're women...we get it.) Feminist Legal Theory addressed this controversy here. The ABA does not seem to collect data on women-owned or all-women law firms. Even a search within the database of the National Association of Minority and Women Owned Law Firms yielded only one all-female law firm in California. Rather, on the database I kept encountering law firms that had male and female attorneys, yet were "women-owned." 

In my search for the original law firm that had prompted my curiosity I came across Goldfarb & Lipman LLP. The home page of the firm's website stated it was a women-owned law firm that the Women's Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC) had certified. According to the WBENC, to qualify as such a business it must be 51% "owned, controlled, operated, and managed by a woman or women." In addition, the business must go through a formal site visit and documentation process. The WBENC claims that the certification gives women-owned business an edge by being able to compete for business opportunities that WBENC Corporate Members and government agencies provide.

The fact that it was difficult to find all-women law firms led me to wonder why that was so. Why is it that women do not band together to try to combat a male-dominated profession through creating their own law firms? Is creating more all-women law firms the appropriate way to break through the glass ceiling? I believe that great change in areas such as gender equality does not occur through separation. Ideally, progress requires a partnership between men and women to change the status quo. Separation through the creation of all-women law firms may alienate men, and thus give more power to the men who already dominate the legal profession. According to statistics from the American Bar Association, women still comprise only 33% of legal professionals in the United States.

Maybe, then, having certified women-owned law firms is how women should assert and create power in the legal profession. Creating a culture through certification where women-owned law firms garner respect and draw in clients can occur while these law firms maintain partnerships with sympathetic men who support women advancing in the field. However, one problem with the WBENC certification is the implication that without certification women owned businesses cannot compete for certain business. Such an implication undercuts professional women's agency. Maybe instead the implication is that there is gender bias in our society that has little to do with women's actual agency and thus women should have more opportunities to combat that bias.

While I believe working in all-women law firm could be beneficial for a work-life balance, some all-women law firms may generate or affirm certain female stereotypes. In 2010, an all-female law firm in Dallas, Texas decided to hire its first male associate. While the associate mentioned that the work was the same anywhere else, he also stated that the atmosphere was more "laidback," the decor nicer, and the lack of a March Madness pool meant he did not have to worry about being last in the pool. Instead of genuinely touting the law firm as the same as any other, the article and the associate highlighted the stereotyped differences of an all-women law firm that some may perceive as negative.

According to Catalyst, over 51% of women practicing law are in private practice. In addition, according to the ABA's Lawyer's Demographic Table 2012, found here, solo practitioners comprise the largest percentage of attorneys in private practice. Following these statistics, probably the most common all-women law firm is the solo practitioner.  While solos can achieve WBENC certification, why would they need to when they can have practices with names like Women's Law Firm, or my favorite Wild Woman Law Practice? Maybe solo is the way to go. In solo practices women can assert their agency and independence while not alienating men because these women are merely participating in the most popular form of legal practice.

In my next post I plan to address the meanings and consequences of attorneys catering to women clients or serving women clients exclusively. Until then, I would be interested to hear what others think about all-female law firms.


CET said...

After reading this blog post, I have a new appreciation for my future employer as majority women-owned law firm. The managing partner who interviewed me is a woman and was recently named one of the top women in business in the Santa Barbara, Ventura, and San Luis Obispo Tri-Counties area. Although the firm is majority owned by women (there are 3 partners and 2 are women who own 75% of the business), there are quite a few men working as support staff. I think this creates a healthy balance in the workplace. Women benefit when they have access to diverse perspectives and this may be best achieved by employing men as paralegals and legal assistants. The key will be to find male paralegals (in 2004, 86% of paralegals were women).

Sarah said...

My mother and her female partner run a law firm, one of the first women-owned firms in Solano county as far as I know. All of her staff, with the exception of one male attorney, are women. Prior to beginning this firm, she co-founded Legal Services for Children in Solano county with another female attorney. I think, for her, just out of law school many years ago, private practice seemed like a natural fit. I am surprised that there aren't more women-run private firms, and appreciate your share.

Elizabeth said...

Thanks for bringing attention to this topic. Last summer I worked at Goldfarb & Lipman, the firm you mentioned that was certified female-owned, and I will be returning as an associate there next fall. To me, the fact that they are female-owned was a very attractive feature of applying to work there.

Honestly, my 2L year was very dishearteningly going through the job application process because I was getting tired of interviewing with old white dudes who I had nothing in common with. When I interviewed at G&L it just felt right. There were an equal amount of men and women in the room and everyone was just so NICE.

During the summer I was trying to figure out if this was really the place for me longterm. One important consideration was the work-life balance. I discovered the work-life balance there is really great there. Almost everyone has children and they make their families a priority. It was great to see a powerful female partner who was pregnant with twins and still working hard. One associate had to take a week off to care for a child who had health issues and no one batted an eye. I think the fact that there are so many female partners has a huge impact on these work-life balance considerations. Also, there were so many great female attorney role models for me to turn to. It is really important to be able to see people like yourself in power to believe that you can get there too. I think that's a huge advantage of having a woman-owned firm.

Mo said...

The idea of the "woman’s law firm" and the WBENC certification are interesting, but I have to admit that I am pretty skeptical of both. If ownership (or majority partnership) is the gold standard for the feminist movement vis-à-vis the legal profession, isn’t that somewhat counterproductive? That is, should we really be seeking to “win” control over every law firm out there? Or should we be seeking something more akin to equal representation? Frankly, I would side with the latter. I don’t think that replacing the system we have now (i.e., male managers/female support staff) with its inverse (i.e., female managers/male support staff) represents progress. It seems instead to be fighting one extreme with another -- all toward the ostensible goal of equality. Additionally, a diverse workforce is a valuable workforce, and I think clients are increasingly conscious of that. To that end, I can’t really see either male- or female-dominated firms being as successful on a global level in the future. In any event, I’d rather see the WBENC giving kudos to firms with management teams that more accurately represent the greater population in terms of sex, gender, race, etc. than certifying management teams or firms simply because they are controlled by women.