Breaking the Glass Ceiling in the Legal World

3 Min Read By: Michelle Foster

Ask a group of female attorneys about their experience with the fabled “glass ceiling,” and you will likely hear many stories. The glass ceiling describes the barrier that women in numerous professions bump up against when trying to climb the ladder in their respective careers. Women have made tremendous strides in the working world, yet the glass ceiling remains stubbornly in place in many businesses.

Unequal Partners

Today, women make up more than 50% of entrants into law school, equity that was built over decades of struggle and work. Although a similar number of men and women are studying to become lawyers, this has not translated into an equal number of women becoming partners in law firms: Partnerships still primarily belong to men. The latest statistics, according to Law.com, place partnerships for women at 31% overall. This is an increase over smaller numbers from the past 20 years, but there is still much room for improvement.

Barriers persist for female lawyers who seek to reach higher levels in their careers. Men generally hold higher seniority in law firms, with some notable exceptions, and also typically outearn their female counterparts. Per Law.com, the numbers for women holding equity partnership in firms have experienced growth since studies conducted in 2012. However, even with an improvement in the number of women reaching equity partner status, the growth has been slower than expected.

When I moved to New York City in the mid-1980s to join a private practice, I worked with a number of female attorneys, but the partners were all male. I have definitely seen a major increase in women partners, and law firms have brought more women into management, including managing partner roles. For women entering law, there are more mentors than ever. However, there has been slower progress in terms of women being brought into client development, especially with key clients. The upper echelon of law careers remains, largely, a boy’s club.

The Motherhood Dilemma

In “firm life,” there is a strong emphasis on billable hours. Women may take time off or go part-time to start families. That, to some degree, has led some women attorneys to choose in-house opportunities. Amassing billable hours is difficult when you’re bearing children, taking care of infants and family obligations.

Some firms are beginning to make concerted efforts to give credit for billable hours even when lawyers are on family or maternity leave. These efforts allow women, as well as men, to take desired breaks to build their families without risking their partnership track.

However, because of the many additional pressures and expectations women face around raising and bearing children, female lawyers need extra support, and firms must be thoughtful and break from tradition to promote a path to partnership.

Breaking Through

How should female lawyers confront the reality of the glass ceiling and chisel away at it until they can break through to the other side?

In addition to the larger changes needed in the industry, several individual approaches to the glass ceiling can help lessen its impact and contribute to, someday, eliminating it all together.

  • Female lawyers should have actionable goals and a plan for the trajectory of their career.
  • Mentors are important to female lawyers—someone to help them navigate the law firm environment and teach them valuable skills like business development.
  • Be patient, but not stagnant. Focus not only on building skills, but also on building client relationships and business.
  • Do not be afraid to ask for business. Be fearless and consider the fact that you are actually helping your clients avoid problems and deal with complicated business issues.
  • Do not be afraid of change. If you see a unique or exceptional opportunity, go for it. Those who are afraid of change often stagnate.
By: Michelle Foster

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