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The nation’s law school class of 1988 boasted a student population that was 41 percent female. The ’80s, in fact, saw a surge in more women than ever going to law school. But where are all of those women today? Sixteen years after they became lawyers, these women should be heading law firms, working as general counsel, and making their mark on the legal world. Think again. According to the American Bar Association’s Commission on Women in the Profession, in 2003, women made up just over 16 percent of law firm partners. They were about 15 percent of Fortune 500 general counsel, about 16 percent of law school deans, and roughly 17 percent of federal judges. What happened? Is this the fabled “glass ceiling,” or simply personal choices to jump off the traditional legal track? Some women attorneys will admit that sexism has affected their law opportunities, but few will talk about it on the record. One thing is clear: women are making more varied choices today in their legal careers. In the process, they’re carving out new roles in the law, roles that weave their legal careers into other parts of their lives. When the class of 1988 started practicing law, most law firms still operated on the traditional “up or out” path that could be tough on women with families. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, there were few alternatives to the full-time practice of law, says Katherine Henry, a partner in the D.C. office of Dickstein Shapiro Morin & Oshinsky and National Association of Women Lawyers liaison to the ABA’s Commission on Women in the Profession. Henry, who graduated from law school in 1989, says the make-partner-or-bust mentality may explain why some of the women of her generation left firms to work for corporations or the government, where schedules were less demanding. For a variety of reasons, women today have more options. Perhaps rather than see themselves as dropouts of a draconian system, the women of the Class of ’88 have helped to change the rules. Who would have imagined that one day, employers — firms, companies, and the government — would allow flexible schedules, telecommuting, and even reduced hours? I talked to a handful of representative women. Granted, some have reached the top. Few of them are doing exactly what they expected to be doing when they started back in 1988. But each says she has made choices that are right for her. SENIOR COUNSEL, FEWER HOURS Julie Smith has covered a lot of bases in the legal world since her Harvard Law School graduation. She’s been an associate at a big West Coast firm, a government attorney, and a stay-at-home mom. Today she’s senior counsel at Foley & Lardner in D.C. practicing securities law. She has a “reduced hours” schedule at Foley (her commitment is to bill 1,500 hours a year) and says her life today is a lot different than she imagined. “When I was in law school, I thought I wanted to teach law, but then I thought I ought to try my hand at practicing law because I had spent the time and money to get my degree,” says Smith. She admits her fear was not whether she would become partner in a big law firm, but whether she could have a family as well. “I was afraid that I would find I couldn’t work it all in. And I’m glad that didn’t happen,” says Smith, a mother of three. After staying home with her children for a few years, Smith started looking for opportunities to get back into the legal world. At first, she thought her main option would be government work. She was happily surprised to learn that some law firms had become more flexible, especially with today’s technology. Smith has her BlackBerry, laptop, and cell phone — all gadgets to keep her in touch with the office when she’s at home. As a result, Smith says her work life now is more flexible than when she was a government lawyer. Another lawyer who has been able to mix law and family is Patricia Harris, a partner at Holland & Knight. Harris spent two years as a paralegal, then went to law school. Her passion since college has been urban planning. It turned out that land use practice brings her the best of all worlds. “There are ebbs and flows in my practice. Sometimes it feels crazy, but it’s fairly manageable. Professionally I’m very satisfied and, for the most part, can’t believe I’m getting paid to do this. I can usually leave work by 6 p.m., if I don’t have any evening commitments, in order to spend time with the kids, and then I can work later after they are in bed,” says Harris. But Harris says she can’t help feeling disappointed when other women leave law firms for different careers. “Maybe that’s not fair, but sometimes I think that just reaffirms the stereotype. When women drop out, it means the decision-makers at firms are still mostly going to be men, so the things you’d like to see get changed don’t, and the status quo gets reinforced.” MAKING CHANGES While Smith and Harris have found flexibility in their firms, other women attorneys haven’t reached that level of satisfaction. Ellen Ostrow, of Lawyers Life Coach, is one local career coach who helps D.C.-area women attorneys figure out where they should be in the legal world. Ostrow says that usually by the time her clients call, they have reached some sort of turning point and need help sorting out how to succeed in certain work environments. It’s no surprise, then, that her practice is thriving. One woman who has made a significant change is Marian Carlson, an ’88 University of Denver grad. Carlson tried many different ways to be happy as a lawyer, first at the Denver office of a large national firm. Then, after changing jobs several times, Carlson had what Oprah might call her “A-ha! moment.” “It occurred to me one day that maybe I didn’t belong in the traditional practice of law,” says Carlson. For one thing, Carlson perceived barriers created by the high billable-hour expectations of many firms, clients’ frequent dissatisfaction with the litigation process, and a “boys’ club” atmosphere, resulting partly from what she sensed was a greater ease between male senior lawyers and young male attorneys. So in 2002, she decided it was time to see a career counselor when she realized she loved mentoring and teaching. That’s when she started her own company, carving out a niche in legal consulting and training. Brigit Macksey also opted for a break from practicing law, mainly because of conflicts between her career and family commitments. When Macksey graduated from Georgetown Law in 1988, she was excited to land a job as a litigation associate at the biggest law firm in Baltimore. After the birth of her daughter, Macksey became a partner in 2000. But less than a year later, she gave it up, in large part due to the increasing difficulty in balancing her work-travel schedule and her family life. “I was traveling a lot for my job and was not getting to spend much time with my daughter. After a while, I could tell that my 2-year-old was feeling resentful that I was home so little. At that point, I knew I couldn’t do both,” she says. While her firm encouraged her to work out a more flexible schedule, she knew that as a practical matter it would be extremely difficult to stay on top of a busy litigation practice and fulfill family obligations. Today Macksey is debating whether to return to the law, now that her daughter starts kindergarten this year. Cheryl Heisler, founder of Lawternatives, a legal career consulting service based in Chicago, says she’s not surprised that women who were looking down the partnership track when they were 25 and single found themselves re-routed by changes in their lives. “Women who are career-oriented and ambitious find, and sometimes are surprised that, their priorities change at different points in their life cycle,” says Heisler, who has been advising attorneys for 16 years. “We all want different things depending on our age, and perhaps the number of women partners today reflects that more women are in touch with those changing needs,” says Heisler. But Heisler concedes that the ability to juggle professional and family obligations can be tougher in law than in other fields. THE GOVERNMENT OPTION Government practice has turned out to be a good fit for one D.C. ’88 graduate. Although today Imani Ellis-Cheek is the mother of two and an attorney at the Federal Communications Commission, she didn’t start out with the FCC in mind. Ellis-Cheek stayed home with her children, did some court-appointed work for several years, and got her L.L.M. When it was time to go back to work, she realized she would need flexibility for her kids and investigated government work. Today with the FCC’s international bureau, she telecommutes two days a week. “For me this has been a win-win situation. I am more relaxed because I have the peace of mind knowing that my life is manageable,” she says. Initially she didn’t fully understand how hard it would be to be a full-time lawyer and a full-time, actively engaged mother, but she’s happy that she’s been able to find an interesting legal job that gives her flexibility. Similarly, Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Lynn Stewart didn’t start out thinking she wanted a career on the bench. When she was in law school at the University of Maryland, she thought her career goal was to become a corporate lawyer with a huge income. But a judicial clerkship changed her mind. After trying cases for years as a Maryland assistant state’s attorney, she became a judge in 2002. Stewart says she loves her job, but says she’s not sure she’d be on the bench today if she were married with children. “It takes so much time to do this job, I think it would take a really special person to successfully juggle a family, the bar activities, judicial responsibilities, and campaigning. There’s not a lot of free time. But I love it,” she says. While she doesn’t rule out getting married later, she says she’s not interested in having children. Stewart does not think her legal opportunities have been different from those available to men. But she says there have been times when she thinks male attorneys appearing before her have treated her differently because she’s a young woman. At about the six-month mark into her judicial career, Stewart says one attorney exclaimed when she came on the bench, “Oh, I wasn’t expecting someone so young!” While the increasing numbers of women in law classes in the 1980s should have meant more women in law firms and in the types of jobs that law students have traditionally thought about, it hasn’t happened. The reasons seem to be as varied as the women who work in the law. But it sounds like the good news may be that as women become a larger force in the legal community, options for creating legal practices that fit people’s lives and families are expanding. Maybe some day the men will even catch on. Joanne Cronrath Bamberger is an attorney and freelance writer in Washington, D.C., and a 1988 graduate of the University of Kansas School of Law.

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