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One of the most tenacious problems for women in the legal profession is the mere act of being a woman in the legal profession. Certainly, things are easier now than they were in the 1960s, when women were just beginning to enter law school in large numbers, only to be greeted with open hostility. Fortunately, instances of blatant discrimination and harassment are few and far between these days. It’s still not smooth sailing for women in the law, however. Attrition continues to be high, particularly among working mothers, many of whom find the hours and demands incompatible with running a family. A new book, “Gender on Trial: Sexual Stereotypes and Work/Life Balance in the Legal Workplace” (ALM Publishing), puts these issues under a magnifying glass and finds the legal profession deeply in need of a gender overhaul. [ALM Publishing is an affiliate of Texas Lawyer.] Nevertheless, the author, Holly English, is surprisingly optimistic about the profession’s hope for redemption. In reading English’s book, however, it’s tempting to get discouraged. And it’s not just her book. There are shelves of books devoted to dissecting the issues affecting professional women, particularly those hoping to balance work and family. Each one offers hundreds of pages of statistical and anecdotal evidence supporting the premise that the progress of women in the work world is indeed slow. Very, very, very slow. But one of the things I find encouraging about this body of literature is that it even exists. Ten years ago, one would have been hard-pressed to find any thoughtful, well-researched books on the subject of women in the legal profession. And, although literature doesn’t equal action, the more books written about a subject, the more book reviews and accompanying “trend-spotting” newspaper and magazine articles they incite. And the more of those there are, the more pressure firms feel to respond to them. The second thing I find encouraging about this growing body of literature is that, despite the fact that the progress they show is glacial, it is progress. True, the women of my generation probably kvetched about the same issues as the women entering the profession today do. But our complaints — valid though they may be — don’t begin to compare with those of women entering the profession 40 years ago. Those women, if they were even accepted into a top-tier law school, were openly derided. A recent book about the travails of Harvard Law School’s class of 1964, “Pinstripes & Pearls,” by Judith Hope, relates the tale of a dinner hosted by the school’s dean, where the guest list included all of the women in each class (and none of the men), along with selected faculty and their wives. After dinner, the students were called upon, one by one, to answer the dean’s horrifying question, “Why are you at Harvard Law School, taking the place of a man?” You’d be hard-pressed to find a law school graduate of the last 10 to 20 years who experienced anything even close to that. SMOOTH SAILING? And there was more encouraging news in a recent article in The American Lawyer magazine, “Cracks in the Ceiling,” June 2003. The article describes the growing ascendance of women into the partnership ranks in some of the nation’s oldest and largest firms. While the numbers are still small, they are growing. And much of the reason they are growing, the article states, is that the firms with the best records actively promote alternative and part-time work options. [ The American Lawyer is a Texas Lawyer affiliate.] But it’s also clear that success is a two-way street. Every lawyer, male or female, must take control of his or her own career to be successful. As I’ve said before, the single best way to get ahead in the legal profession is to be the absolute best lawyer you can be. As luck would have it, that’s also the best way to convince your firm to give you flexibility when you need it. A firm is far more likely to accommodate one of its most valuable players than it is one of its second- or third-stringers. And there are no two ways about it: The best way to become a great lawyer is to put in the hours, particularly during your first few years in the profession. If you’re a first- or second-year lawyer as you read this, I’m not going to promise that all the barriers to your success will be raised by the time you reach partnership eligibility. But I will promise that — provided women keep up the drumbeat of progress — they will be lower. Perhaps when our daughters get out of law school, it’ll be smooth sailing. Kathleen J. Wu is a partner in Andrews & Kurth in Dallas.

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