Are Moms at the Top Law Firms Happy?

by Nicole Weber | May 06, 2015

  • My Vault

What better time than Mother’s Day to tip our hats to working moms in one of the most demanding jobs around? This year over 17,000 lawyers participated in Vault’s Law Firm Associate Survey and told us what it’s really like to work in BigLaw. The full rankings and law firm profiles, complete with comments submitted by attorneys on all aspects of firm life, will be released next month. In the meantime, we on the editorial team have been immersing ourselves in the survey data. While it’s certain that the top firms are trying to make promotion more appealing and attainable for female attorneys with benefits like generous parental leave and flex-time, survey participants made it clear that it’s still an uphill battle for women trying to balance work and family life—even with the measures their firms have undertaken. To paraphrase one associate, on the whole, most big firms don’t “get” women and the support they need in order to be successful.

We asked associates to rate and comment on their firm’s gender diversity efforts in hiring, promotion and mentoring, and we told them to “[f]eel free to discuss issues relating to hiring, retention, promotion, child care, maternity/paternity leave and mentoring opportunities.” Here’s a sampling of what associates have to say about life as a woman at the most prestigious firms in the country:

  • “You don't see many women/minorities among partners.  Maternity leave is generous but there is still a stigma attached to it and to part-time work.”
  • “The overwhelming majority of partners are white men that hover around 6 feet tall.  At 3000 hours per year, there is little room for anything but work in your life.  Women in particular have difficulty making those sacrifices.”
  • “I think the firm is experiencing the same issues as other big law firms in terms of having women reach partnership and stay on. They do offer generous maternity leaves and good benefits, and I think that helps, but the teams are very masculine, especially at the higher echelons, which sometimes makes it harder for women to move up the ladder. I haven't been there long, but I have not yet met a woman role model.”
  • “I honestly believe that many partners at the firm make substantial efforts to retain women, and there are certain perks that go a long way towards that end (for example, a maternity leave policy that is extremely generous, even among peer firms).  That said, in a way, ‘the firm’ just doesn't ‘get’ women or the things that are important to women.  Ironically, they seem to know this and are making an effort to discover the areas that need improvement:  they have started a women's initiative where female associates can raise issues that are important to them.  However, it is clear simply by looking at the associates they've selected for the initiative that it is not going to reveal anything helpful.  The firm really is trying, just not remotely effectively.”
  • “Whether women can ‘have it all’ in corporate law under the current partnership model is yet to be seen.”
  • “The efforts are there in hiring, truly. But there just aren't many women in corporate M&A past fifth year. Hard to say whether that's due to lack of efforts in promotion or mentoring.”
  • “The firm currently has a taskforce related to retention of female attorneys at the firm, with an outside consultant that they pay a significant amount of money.  However, I could tell them why female attorneys leave in a sentence and save them a ton of money: all of the old male partners talk to us in a way that is extremely condescending, a way in which they do not speak to male associates.  They also treat us like we won't be here in a few years, while they treat male associates like there are partnership opportunities.  However, with respect to minorities and LGBT individuals, I feel like the firm does a better job.”
  • “The women in the firm are very supportive of one another. However, as at most major firms, the number of women diminishes significantly at higher levels.”
  • “On the corporate side, no female associate who had a child as an associate has ever made partner.  It sends a pretty strong message about what the firm considers a priority.  As a plus, maternity leave and paternity leave is generous.  The firm is very open to alternative arrangements, but promotion or advancement opportunities within those alternative arrangements is non-existent.”

Given all of the above, it’s a wonder any woman (whether she plans on having children or not) would want to work in BigLaw. But it’s not all bad news.

  • “Maternity/paternity leave policy is tremendous (18/4 weeks).”
  • “Maternity and paternity leave is very good—most people take full advantage of it and are genuinely encouraged to use it.” 
  • “I've been pregnant, taken maternity leave, and have had a small baby while at the firm. I feel like the firm has been supportive throughout all of this and offers generous benefits to help me adapt to life as a working mother.”
  • “As a woman I feel like the firm is doing what it can to promote my success here and connect me to other women. The reality is that there are fewer of us who get hired by big law firms, particularly in corporate, and fewer of us stay around for a long time. I don't know why because I haven't been here even a year yet.”
  • “The firm is very focused on retaining talented women and recruiting a diverse group of individuals—individual partners take great leadership roles and I think they have been successful! As far as I know, everyone is happy with the maternity leave policies as well. The firm's women's leadership initiative is very tuned in to training, retaining and even more so sponsoring bright women in the ranks, which they do through programming as well as just connecting the women across the office in social settings, etc.”
  • “There has been a large influx of female associates, particularly in the corporate practice. Although we will see if this translates into more female partners down the line, there has certainly been a cultural shift that has created a very nurturing work environment for female associates.”

Hats off to all of the law firm professionals, male and female, mother or not, who are fighting to make the world of corporate law more welcoming to women and other minority candidates. And to those, like the women at the Geller Law Group, who refuse to believe that women can’t “have it all” and have premised their company’s structure around the ability to juggle the demands of work and family.  

Look out for more info from the Vault Law Survey in the coming weeks, and stay tuned for the release of our annual Law Rankings in June and July!

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Read More:
Which Law Firms May Actually be Celebrating Mother's Day?
Vault's Best Law Firms for Diversity for Women
A Woman-Led Law Firm That Lets Partners Be Parents
Egg Freezing Perk: Latest Proof That Women Can’t Have It All?

Filed Under: Law | Workplace Issues

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