Friday, March 26, 2021
Yesterday, I had the honor of leading a roundtable discussion on women and the practice of business law. The roundtable was part of a series convened by UT Law's Student Council on Diversity and Inclusion, and this specific roundtable was hosted by our Black Law Student Association. Here's the promotional flyer from the event.
In preparing for the session, I had occasion to review two ABA reports from the past few years: Roberta D. Liebenberg & Stephanie A. Scharf, Walking Out The Door : The Facts, Figures, and Future of Experienced Women Lawyers in Private Practice (ABA 2019), and Destiny Peery, Paulette Brown & Eileen Letts, Left Out or Left Behind: The Hurdles, Hassles, and Heartaches of Achieving Long-term Legal Careers for Women of Color (ABA 2020). I was reminded of the fall-off in female lawyers in BigLaw over the course of their careers. Quoting from the first report:
BigLaw is no stranger to the loss of experienced women attorneys. While entering associate classes have been comprised of approximately 45% women for several decades, in the typical large firm, women constitute only 30% of non-equity partners and 20% of equity partners. Women lawyers face many other challenging hurdles as they seek to advance into senior roles: the number of lawyers named as new equity partners at big firms has declined by nearly 30% over the past several years, and firms are increasingly relying on the hiring of lateral partners, over 70% of whom are men.
At the event, I noted this data and the principal reasons why women self-reported that they left practice. These include: care-taking obligations, workplace stress levels, responsibilities for marketing/originating business, billable hour requirements, loss of the desire to practice law, work/life balance dissatisfaction, and concerns about personal or family health.
I also noted specific difficulties faced by women of color. In that regard, I referenced the following quote from a Black female lawyer in her late 40s (included in the second ABA report mentioned above).
Some of the barriers you can’t do [anything] about—like the(mis)perceptions people have in their own minds about your race or your sex or your background. So you start by having to overcome those negative assumptions, stereotypes, and presumptions. And then there’s the ‘black tax’ of having to demonstrate outsized achievements just to get the same opportunities as everyone else. It’s not by accident that at the firms at which I worked, every single black associate had at least two Ivy League degrees. Majority associates? Not so much.
There were no real surprises for me in these two reports. Having said that, I must note that they capture important data and reflections. I recommend that everyone read them.
Of course, only some female law graduates (a relatively small number/percentage) start their careers in business finance or governance. The number/percentage of female lawyers in large business law practices typically does not increase over time; it decreases. Therefore, the number/percentage of women in those practice areas at the partner/shareholder/senior leadership level is relatively small. (By the way, please let me know if you know where I can find some recent reliable data on all this.)
I noted the relatively small percentage of women who enroll in my upper division advanced business law courses (a maximum in any course of 33-1/3%, and that's pretty rare). I asked the student participants for their ideas on why more women do not take these courses or, in general, express a desire to practice business law. Among the responses were the following: not having been exposed to business lawyers or business operations, being intimidated by the subject matter, and being concerned that too much math may be involved. I also asked them how we might work to correct the imbalance in business law and more generally. Students volunteered their observations and ideas. The were thoughtful, reflecting on their own experiences while also working hard to appreciate the circumstances of others. One of the female students pressed her male colleagues to contribute. It was a super discussion. Several students contacted me after the roundtable to follow up on some points.
We only had an hour together, which was barely enough time to begin to scope out these issues. There was certainly more that could have been said had there been more time. I invited students to continue the conversation among themselves and with me and other faculty. I have hope they will do that. I want to ensure that business law knowledge and practice is accessible to all, and I could use their help in accomplishing that goal.