The evolution of women in the law: creating opportunities outside of the old model

The enactment of Title IX in 1972 changed many aspects of higher education. We frequently associate this important federal law with increased access for women to college sports. But that is only one way in which Title IX altered higher education. Professional schools began to allow women to enroll, not merely in dribs and drabs, small quotas such as those that previously limited the number of women who would be admitted. Post-Title IX, women began to enroll in professional schools in numbers that more accurately reflected both talent and aptitude as well as demographics. I have not specifically researched this point, but I have a hunch that it took a number of years for the composition of law school classes to begin to equalize. At least Title IX started the process, created opportunities for women. Women began to be utilized for their contributions to the professional workforce.

Title IX should not be confused with universal acceptance of women in the law. Whether overt and pointedly biased or more subtle and slightly more benignly, barriers existed to the advancement of women in the law. The model for private practice when I took my first job in a law firm in the early 1980s was male-dominated and male-centered. Aspiring to the important status of partnership, an associate was expected to work long hours, be seen by the partners during off-hours and engage in community or professional events. This is a swell model if the associate has little if any, obligations to run a household or rear children because that was predominantly the job of a woman. Regardless of one’s reaction to this social model, one conclusion about it is imminently clear: it works a lot less favorably for the associate when she is a woman.

Slowly, incrementally, things have begun to change. Women tend not to be proportionately represented as partners in our nation’s large law firms. In general, my observation is that women have become more interested in securing positions that provide greater flexibility. The outcomes are as creative as the women who are exploring this uncharted territory: they start their own law firms, they perform contract work, they become mediators and arbitrators. What the past several generations of women have demonstrated is that they are unwilling to accept the old model for practicing law, which
also means rejecting the rules that governed that model. I will address women and money in a later posting, but the point here is that the assignment of annual billable hours and the number of new clients one brings to the firm are merely two examples of the often rigid structure in law firms that today’s women lawyers are less interested in accepting as immutable requirements.