As you may have guessed from reading many of my posts, I am the self-appointed spokeswoman for women in small law firms. I recently read a post on the Careerist about women lawyers and ambition. Vivia Chen cites some sobering statistics from a survey done by More magazine: 43% of women (out of 500 35-60 year-olds surveyed) are less ambitious now than ten years ago; 73% would not apply for their bosses’ jobs (38% of them do not want to because they do not want to deal with the politics, pressure and responsibility); and 92% of women rate job flexibility as their number one career priority.
From this survey, Chen concludes as follows: “If you’re a female lawyer (or aspiring to be), you might be wasting your energy on the wrong endeavor. In fact, if you’re gunning for any high-paying, high-profile job in a male-dominated field, you might as well put the brakes on right now. Not only are your odds of success remote, but you won’t be happy.”
So now what do I say to my small-firm sisters? You are all lazy bums?
No. And I do not know if I would even say that we are less ambitious despite this ominous survey. Maybe we are just being practical. Hear me out. The women who were surveyed were asked to compare their level of ambition to what it was ten years ago. Ten years ago, before the bubble burst, the economy was much better, and there were more opportunities. I would argue that it is easier to be ambitious when you believe that you can get a better job. Or, as I used to say in the 90s, “Like, duh.”
To make matters worse, women are having more difficulty than men in regaining jobs lost during the Great Recession. This general trend has proven true in law firms as well. According to the National Law Journal, “the percentage of women attorneys at law firms continued a slide that began in 2010. Women accounted for 32.6 percent of law firm lawyers this year, compared to 32.7 in 2010, according to the NALP survey. That represented a decline of about 123 female attorneys among the 123,012-attorney sample.”
In other words, maybe women (generally, and female lawyers in particular) are not less ambitious, but are simply more hopeless about their future employment opportunities. Rather than looking to get their bosses’ jobs (which they are unlikely to do), they would rather hold on to their current jobs with all their might. Otherwise, they face a very difficult task in getting another position.
It seems to me that now, more than ever, retaining and promoting female attorneys ought to be a top priority for small law firms (well, all law firms). Who has some suggestions? Perhaps you are an all-women firm or a firm doing innovative things to attract and keep top female talent? If so, let’s talk.
If we do not do something soon, I will no longer be able to sing the lyrics “she works hard for the money, so hard for it honey” with the same conviction. People, we cannot lose this Donna Summer classic!
When not writing about small law firms for Above the Law, Valerie Katz (not her real name) works at a small firm in Chicago. You can reach her by email at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @ValerieLKatz.