Monday, March 20, 2006

When does the fun start, again?

From Sunday's New York Times business feature, already #1 on the Most-Emailed List:"Why Do So Few Women Reach the Top of Big Law Firms?":
Ms. Matthai said that conditions for women had improved a good deal over the last 30 years, but added: "We have a long way to go. It's my dream that more women will stick it out in the law until they get to the fun part, and it just breaks my heart to see them giving up the dream."
The speaker, Los Angeles County Bar Association President Edith Matthai, misses the point: if they're not "sticking it out" until they get to "the fun part," it's probably because "the part before the fun part" kind of sucks (some might call it a soul-straining, spirit-breaking nightmare of stress, pressure, all-nighters, mind-numbing work and erosion of an outside life, but why get into specifics?).

I was glad to see that the NYT didn't fall back on its usual pet — and pat — rationales that women either (a) are going into the workforce with a plan to opt out; (b) get into the workforce and decide to opt out; or (c) really really tried but just aren't capable of doing it all, so they opt out. Still, I think it would have behooved the author to actually interview young associates — female and male — to see what they actually think (Ms. Matthai's experience notwithstanding, I'd rather hear a young associate explain firsthand why it's not worth "sticking it out" at a law firm). AK at Penguins On The Equator makes a good point, namely that "most of the lifestyle problems at firms likewise present difficulties for male lawyers who want a fulfilling family life or social life outside the confines of the office" — see that played out thoughtfully at Opinionistas (who is an expert in the lifestyle challenges of law firm life!), in a telling conversation with a male co-worker.

As for the gender divide, well, I can say from my own experience that there certainly doesn't have to be a difference between the male and female experience, but there usually is. This does not mean that women can't have a fulfilling and enjoyable career; I can think of a whole bunch of whipsmart, happy, balanced, productive and successful lawyers amongst my female friends. But, that doesn't mean that there aren't certain challenges, or situations where suddenly you feel your head smack into a heretofore-unseen glass ceiling. Again, it doesn't mean you can't crash through it, if you want to; I just know a few other women who didn't want to fight that hard (NB: we're talking about law firms here. I know plenty of women — and men — who have gone one to happy, fruitful careers in-house). I'm just saying that it can be rough: my most enthusiastic and gung-ho lawyer friend, a mid-level associate at a midtown Manhattan law firm, has spent the past three weeks straight in the office, round the clock, sneaking furtive catnaps under his desk as more assignments come his way. He's on track for a 300+ hour month of March. Opinionistas has more stories like that (this is a good starting point). If firms are serious about retaining good people, they should pay attention to stories like these — and if the New York Times is serious about finding out why young female associates are dropping out on the way to the corner office, it should just ask them.

UPDATE: Opinionista weighs in.

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