Barriers Still Persist, Women Lawyers Say : Workplace: Despite gains in recent years, study finds men still have inside track to partnership status.


Los Angeles law firms are opening their doors wider to women lawyers these days, but many continue to shut them out of areas critical to achieving senior partner rank and equal financial rewards, according to a study released Wednesday by the Women Lawyers Assn. of Los Angeles.

Despite women’s significant advances in the last decade, the study concludes, law largely continues to be an “old boys’ club.”

“Women have made a lot of progress, especially in clear issues such as part-time work and maternity leave policies and in areas of sexual harassment,” said Kim McLane Wardlaw, president of the organization and a partner at O’Melveny & Meyers.


“But it’s a cup half-empty, half-full. . . . The survey shows that women are increasingly welcomed as ‘minders’ and ‘grinders,’ but not as ‘finders,’ ” she said--which means women are doing routine tasks and “grunt” work but not generating new business and clients.

“Unfortunately, the finders are the ones who have the most power, prestige and standing in the profession, so we’re still behind in obtaining this power,” Wardlaw said.


One primary roadblock, according to this survey and others, is exclusion from formal and informal settings designed to bring in new clients and sharpen so-called rainmaking skills. Another is the lack of mentors within law firms or government agencies that could help women learn the ropes of legal practice.

Those two areas are increasingly critical today in achieving partner or senior manager rank within law firms and agencies, said Cory M. Amron, a Washington attorney who chairs the American Bar Assn.’s Commission on Women in the Profession.

“Nationally, client development--especially in these economic times--has become absolutely crucial,” she said. “Where once you could be just a good lawyer and progress within your firm, today there is an inordinate emphasis placed on the clients you can bring to the firm. The firms see that as their lifeblood.”

Amron agreed with many in the Los Angeles survey who said that female attorneys are at a great disadvantage compared to their male colleagues, who network with clients and each other and develop a business base in typically men-only settings.


Junior women say they are also less likely to be mentored by senior attorneys, because there are too few senior female lawyers--and the senior men most often mentor other men.

Women in 1993 made up 41% of associates--or junior staff members--and 15% of partners at Los Angeles-area law firms of 20 or more lawyers. That was up from 25% of associates and 4% of partners a decade ago, according to preliminary figures gathered by the group.

Of the 427 lawyers who responded to the survey, 73% said women and men have an equal chance of being hired at their law firms, corporate legal departments or governmental agencies.

However, the survey said, once inside, women find subtle barriers based on gender; only 10% said gender bias from colleagues was no problem, while 32% said it was either a “large” or “pervasive” problem.

Also, while 63% said in the survey that they are able to balance family and career, in comments they generally defined “balance” as sacrificing either partnership potential or quality family life. Although law firm policies on part-time work and parental leave have loosened considerably in the past decade, many female lawyers say their careers suffer when they choose to have families.

Not all women, however, find these problems insurmountable to success or even happiness; 83% of the respondents said they were satisfied with the level of responsibility they have been given. More than half (53%) said women in their companies or agencies have equal opportunity with men for administrative and management roles. And 54% said they were either reasonably or very satisfied with their jobs.



Comments by those surveyed offered an often astonishing look at the enduring gender bias inside law firms today.

Some firms have no female partners at all. One woman reported that while 13 of the 18 lawyers in her firm are women, all of the bosses are men. Others said women routinely were not included in, or even told about, firm social functions, such as golf outings. Another was told she was “too attractive” to be mentored by a senior male attorney; others found their commitment to their jobs challenged--or their significant case work disappear--once they became pregnant.

L.A. Law: The Women’s View

A survey by the Women Lawyers Assn. of Los Angeles found that the area’s female attorneys generally are satisfied with the responsibilities they are granted by their firms but continue to feel that the advancement of women lawyers in general is held back by their gender. Some of the findings:

“Women lawyers receive less desirable case assignments/transactions/work.” Strongly agree: 11% Somewhat agree: 49% Somewhat disagree: 27% Strongly disagree: 13%

“Women lawyers are held to a higher standard of performance than men.” Strongly agree: 29% Somewhat agree: 45% Somewhat disagree: 18% Strongly disagree: 8%

Note: The survey was mailed to 1,100 members of the association throughout Los Angeles County, who were asked to pass it along to fellow women lawyers. About 65% of the 427 women who responded are members of the group.


Source: Women Lawyers Assn. of Los Angeles