Adjusted Expectations: 5 Women on Big Law, 12 Years Later

by Cathy Vandewater | November 14, 2013

Five women, all embarking on law careers at Debevoise & Plimpton, reflected on "ambition, leadership and success" for the September 9th, 2001 issue of the New York Times.

Unsurprisingly, they sounded confident, modern, full of energy, and boundlessly optimistic about their career possibilities as women in a male dominated field—especially at the high levels they aspired to.

That was 12 years ago. Has big law changed? Has "lean in" had an effect on the way women think about "having it all"? Have these five in particular adjusted their expectations?

The Times went back to re-interview their subjects with interestingly mixed results. Here's what the women said about their changing ideas about fitting in, keeping up, and sometimes, getting out:

1. Melanie Velez

The takeaway: Working hard doesn't necessarily get you ahead, and female mentors of color would have been helpful

Melanie originally wrote the following in her Times profile: ''I hadn't expected to like working for a corporate firm—it seemed like such a different world—but I really do. I feel some financial responsibility for my sister's education, but in the long run, I'd like to focus on pro bono work, returning to things that made me want to pursue a law degree. It's that idealistic cliché—I want to change the world.''

So—has her idealism changed?

She says, in 2013, "I cringe a little bit now, when I hear myself read that out loud. I think in part because it sounds a bit naïve."

She notes that, while in 2001 she would have said that seeing other women of color making partner would not have had an effect on her, she admits in 2013 that it probably would have.

That might be in part because her ideas on the merits of hard work have changed: "I thought that by working hard and dedicating yourself fully to each aspect of your life you could have everything that you want. And I think that I just built these unrealistic expectations."

2. Nicola C. Port

The takeaway: "Creating possibility" for yourself isn't fair to ask of everyone; it's harder than it looks.

In 2001, Nicola said: ''I think I've chosen the perfect field for me, the perfect city: New York has an unlimited array of possibilities. I'm absolutely against blaming any type of failure on outside circumstances. I believe that you create possibility for yourself. I think the way people are treated follows naturally from how they perceive themselves.''

In 2013, she admitted this way of thinking "is probably a little black and white."

"There's a lot of stress that goes with this kind of a lifestyle. To be getting on a plane every other day or every couple of days and flying thousands of miles and running form one meeting to the next and one language to the next is a strenuous lifestyle." While she admits that "I love it," as for the future, she's still ambivalent—and questions continuing the break-neck pace. "Will I still be doing the same thing in 5 years? Or will I have decided okay, I've had a great career, and now we'll focus on family? I don't know. But I will be open; I will continuously reflect."

3. Margaret L. Dundon/Maggie Spillane

The takeaway: The reality is that it doesn't necessarily ever get easier—and that sometimes means it's just not worth it.

Margaret (or Maggie as she goes by more recently), believed that her ability to be heard in a large family would help her get noticed at a male dominated law firm—almost too much: "At jobs in the past, I think I didn't realize that my way, getting my way, could ever be seen as somehow threatening or offensive.''

But in 2013, she seemed tired of trying so hard to fit in: "I mean, I can keep up. But at a certain point you look around like, I am the only woman playing this game. I am the only woman making these jokes. Or I am the only woman—or one of three women and 17 men—still playing poker at the firm dinner at 1:30 in the morning. It is what it is."

She also questioned what she wanted in getting ahead to begin with: "Forget the "getting there" part of it; you see how hard the partners have to work once they're there, you recognize that in order to do that job well, you really, really, really, need to love working really, really, really hard. And I love to work hard, I do, but I need more of a balance."

She wonders—at what point do the returns diminish? "Is the purpose of life to show that women can do it? Is the purpose of life to raise a kid who's going to be the one who rules the world? And everything in between."

4. Shannon R. Selden

The takeaway: The system worked for me.

Shannon said, 2001: ''I think there still are underlying biases or expectations, but they're hard to pinpoint. And then there are always the questions you have to ask yourselves: do you see yourself as a partner with a family? When I think of men my age, I'm sure most of them spend much less time thinking about how they're going to balance work and family.''

In 2013, she's become exactly what she was considering being: a partner with a family. In fact, the two occurrences happened in the same year, according to the Times. Luckily, her experience was positive: "The firm's been terrific since I've had my daughter," she says. "I took time off for maternity leave and I really wasn't working during that time. I was home full-time with her."

5. Mary Beth Hogan

The takeaway: It's doable with the right support, but there's a lot of work left to do.

In 2001, Mary Beth notes that "maternity leave" is a very real privilege: ''My husband's a partner at a different law firm, but if he'd gone part time, he definitely would have stepped off that career track. So as a woman, I had an option that he did not. I can do what I do because I have a great husband and a great nanny and a great law firm. But I also had to make choices to get to this point. A friend once told me you can only really do two things well at any one time. It's something I remind myself every time I start to get down. My closest friends from Princeton are all stay-at-home moms, although two now work part time. But I think if you'd asked them back then, they would have said they planned on both working and having children. They decided differently when the time came.''

In 2013 though, Mary Beth acknowledges that it's very difficult to "do it all" alone: "You have to have a few ingredients in place. And those ingredients are not so easy to find. The first thing you need is a great partner. I have a great husband, and I couldn't do what I have done without that critical ingredient. You also need a great workplace."

At their law firm specifically, Debevoise, Hogan notes that there are approximately 25 women partners out of just under 150 partners in total--which works out to just under 17% women. which she admits is "frustrating, for sure. No matter what industry you're looking at, there are about 15-20% women in an important leadership position. And that number is not getting much higher."

But she remains optimistic. "We cannot let down our resolve. That's for our daughters and their daughters. I of course consider myself a feminist."

In closing, the Times notes that 4% of top US law firms are led by women.

--Cathy Vandewater, Vault.com

Read More:
The Partner Track: Dare You Proceed?
This Biglaw Memo Sounds Very "Mean Girls"
‘Great Expectations for Female Lawyers’

Filed Under: Law | Workplace Issues


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