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.