I have to admit that I squirmed when I read Law.com’s headline, “The NLJ 500: Career-Nurturing Firms Win High Rankings on Women-in-Law Scorecard.”
It’s not that I don’t want to celebrate law firms with good track records on female partners. What makes me uncomfortable is the word ”nurturing.” It makes women seem super-needy, like orphan baby birds that require special care and feeding for survival.
And I’m not sure it helps women’s image that a senior partner at the No. 1 ranked firm on that list (Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Loewy) suggested to Law.com that other firms adopt “a gentler and kinder approach to running their operations” if they want to attract and promote women.
I’m all for a “gentler and kinder” approach in law firms, but do we want to imply that women need to be handled with special delicacy? From my experience, female lawyers are tough cookies.
But putting aside my quibble with this “nurturing” stuff, the list of firms that are supposedly super-welcoming to women didn’t make me want to break into a happy dance either. (The largest 350 firms on The NLJ 500 were eligible for the list, of which 264 reported data about their female lawyers.)
The reason? Well, the list itself is super-predictable. Once again, the top 25 or so firms for women are dominated by labor and employment, immigration and other specialty firms, as well as smaller, regional firms.
Indeed, you have to read through a lot of unfamiliar firm names until you hit a Big Law firm. (Hogan Lovells—ranked 28th—is the only major firm to make the top 30 list.)
Before I get accused of elitism, let me say I’m not putting down practices such as labor and employment or working at a regional outfit. There are talented lawyers everywhere in all types of practices. But the reality is that most of the practice areas where women succeed—education, family law, health care, immigration and labor and employment—are much-lower paying and far less prestigious. To use a term that’s gotten me in trouble before, they are pink ghettos.
What’s more, The NLJ list probably presents a cheerier picture at some firms than what the reality holds, because it doesn’t make a distinction between equity and nonequity partners. So firms can play games (unthinkable, right?) and show a respectable percentage of female partners, even though most women at their shops are contract partners with little clout. (Also, why are all the female partners at Jones Day listed as “equity” when we all know it’s a two-tiered system?)
Anyway you look at it, the situation is not that rosy for women in the legal profession. But I’m not at all convinced that making firms more “nurturing” will do the trick either.
Besides, who believes that law firms are in the business of “nurturing”?
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