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No Women At the Top -- Part II

Picking up on Bob Ambrogi's post yesterday, there's more commentary in the blog world on The New York Times article on the dearth of women lawyers at the top in big law firms, from Preaching to the Perverted (saying law firms don't care about gender, but color -- green),  The Happy Feminist (detailing her law firm experience) and  Jeremy Blachman (honestly puzzled about how one parent home for dinner most nights is considered a good thing).

Though all these posts are insightful, they don't answer the million-dollar question of why the problem of inequality is endemic to large law firms.  I've got an answer to that one -- it's the "inbreeding" phenomenon.

You don't need to read any further than the Sunday Style pages of The New York Times to see that biglaw attorneys typically marry other biglaw attorneys.  Often, they meet in law school or at clerkships or even on the job.   I attended a relatively small law school (Cornell) and I can think of at least eight or nine couples either immediately in my class or surrounding classes who met at Cornell, married and moved happily into biglaw jobs.  I think that phenomenon applies across the board, and is not unique to my law school.

Within a few years of graduation, the female side of these couples had children and left biglaw practice.  Some left permanently to stay home with children, others transitioned to alternative careers in public interest or teaching.  And all were able to do this because their husbands remained gainfully employed at large firms, in most instances, becoming partners.   Because of marriage to high-earning spouses, most high-earning female attorneys have the ability to leave large firms to care for children -- and indeed, have no choice but to do so if their children are going to have a parent around at all. 

I don't think you see this same phenomenon, i.e., the high incidence of high-earning couples in the same types of positions (associates at large firms) as you do in the legal profession.  There are either cases where couples meet in graduate school and hold lower-earning jobs, such as in academia or social work or journalism, where by necessity, both must continue to work after children are born.  Sometimes, you may find the odd high-earning female attorney who is married to a lower-paid spouse or a spouse with flexible hours -- and in that case, you will probably also find that the female attorney has advanced on the law firm ladder (by example, I know two female attorneys who became partner and counsel at large firms:  in one case, the spouse had a flexible schedule with a day off each week and in the other case, the spouse left his job to stay home with the couple's children). 

I don't know how you eliminate the problem of inbreeding, but in my mind, that's the factor that best explains the gender disparity at large firms.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on March 21, 2006 at 03:03 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

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