This week, the legal world has been buzzing over the New Republic’s exposé on the troubles of Biglaw, told through the tale of the long-suffering Mayer Brown. Our managing editor David Lat wondered if being a partner was the worst job in Biglaw, prompting some raised eyebrows. “Yeah, being a partner is so much worse than being an associate,” said a sarcastic commenter.
Sure, being a Biglaw partner right now isn’t “all peaches and cream,” but for most Biglaw associates — female associates especially — it never was. In fact, in our last discussion of the New Republic piece, very little attention was paid to the plight of one Mayer Brown associate in particular: the woman who was laid off during her maternity leave after surviving two prior rounds of layoffs.
The fragile state of the Biglaw world is such that women who dare to do crazy things like get pregnant must worry about whether they’ve put their jobs on the line. But just how bad is it to be pregnant at an Am Law 200 firm? It couldn’t be worse than being a partner, could it?
It could, and it is…
The New Republic followed up on Noam Scheiber’s article, The Last Days of Big Law, with a piece laying out what happens to pregnant women who are so bold as to take maternity leave at large law firms. Before we dive in, let’s take a look back at the story of “Helen,” the laid-off Mayer Brown associate. Helen had been with the firm since 2001 and thought she was on track to make partner. Then Helen made a fatal (or fetal) career error: she got pregnant. Before she went on maternity leave, she worried that her practice group might get hit by layoffs, since its hours were down. And then, it did:
Helen’s son was born on March 19, 2010. Just before he turned three weeks old, she received the call she’d been dreading. Mayer Brown gave her the rest of her maternity leave, plus another three months pay as severance.
Unfortunately, there are many stories like this in Biglaw, due to the prevalence of the billable hour. It’s a system that makes clear which associates have been spending a little too much time with their families, and how much money a firm has lost as a result. You could be laid off, or when you return, you could be relegated to uninteresting work — if you’re assigned work at all. From the New Republic:
“I think [the billable-hours system] exacerbates it, just because it points out the lower productivity of working mothers,” said Deborah L. Rhode, a law professor at Stanford who directs the Center on the Legal Profession there. She continued: “I remember one woman who reported to a gender bias commission the lower both volume and level of interesting work she received after coming back from maternity leave. And she said, ‘I had a baby, not a lobotomy!’”
Joan Williams, director of the UC Hastings Center for WorkLife Law, notes that she’s heard “very, very persistent reports that women return from maternity leave and find it very difficult to get work, even if they return to work full-time.” According to Williams, it is not at all uncommon for women to return to work after a pregnancy and be let go after they’re unable to fulfill their billable hours requirements.
For all of the many, many ways that Biglaw firms tout their commitment to gender equality in the workplace, and for all of the initiatives they dream up to promote work/life balance, things like this are still happening behind the scenes. For every women’s achievement accolade a firm racks up, one or more of its female employees is being denied the same privileges that her male colleagues enjoy.
“I don’t think lawyers have done as good a job as accounting firms in crunching the numbers and figuring out how much it’s costing them not to have good work-family policies,” Rhode said. “80 percent of women are gonna be mothers,” she added, “and you’re excluding a large percentage of the talent pool if you don’t figure out a way to treat them equitably in the workplace.”
Old stereotypes persist within the legal profession, and as Above the Law’s sole female editor, even I am guilty of propagating them, for which I sincerely apologize (some of the resulting entries in our recent caption contest were despicable). Even though we are reminded every few weeks that women get the shaft in Biglaw in terms of power, pay, and prestige, they are just as valuable their male counterparts, and they deserve to be treated as equals. Women lawyers deserve better, from all of us.
Getting back to our original question, no, being a partner is in no way, shape, or form the “worst job in Biglaw.” Ask any female associate with a family what the worst job in Biglaw is; she’ll tell you the truth.
What Happens to Pregnant Women at a Big Law Firm [The New Republic]