While a study of New York courtrooms released last week showcased the disparity between men and women attorneys in complex cases and offered recommendations to law firms and judges on how they can remedy it, the study didn’t address what causes the gap. A report by the commercial and federal litigation section of the New York State Bar Association released on Thursday found that women attorneys account for only 25 percent of leading counsel roles (NYLJ Aug. 3). Only 20.6 percent of attorneys who appeared before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit were female, according to the report.
Former U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin of the Southern District of New York, who stepped down from the bench in March (NYLJ March 24) and is now of counsel at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, discussed with the New York Law Journal what she thinks contributes to the gender imbalance in law firms. Scheindlin, who helped initiate the study, also discussed what women attorneys can do to better their chances of obtaining leading roles. Scheindlin’s answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: The study of New York courtrooms found that women lawyers are largely eclipsed in complex cases. What’s causing the disparity?
Shira Scheindlin: Women are 50 percent of the graduating class at law school. They’re getting offers at the big firms at the same rate as men, but then come the problems: Women are not getting the same opportunities to actually talk on their feet, to appear at courtrooms, to take or defend depositions. Something goes wrong once women arrive at law firms, and it’s probably because the higher-ranking positions at firms are held by men and people tend to, unconsciously, work with people who look like them. Young men don’t have to be more active or progressive. But for young women that isn’t the case. Unless law firms make a conscious effort to bring them in and meet clients, go to court, take depositions, promote them and eventually make them partner, the gap is going to be hard to change.
Q: The report recommends that law firm leaders, regardless of gender, should mentor female attorneys on how they can get courtroom experience and assign women to work with partners (NYLJ Aug. 7). Would the gap between men and women litigators change if more women were made partners?
Scheindlin: Part of the solution is to see gender equality in the partnership, and that’s just not occurring at most firms. Partnership rates hover around 20 percent for women at most law firms. That’s a big drop from the 50 percent of women who make up graduating classes. Women get discouraged and leave the law, leave litigation, or they leave big firms. Either way, they start leaving in droves because you get discouraged if you’re not getting good cases and not going to court.
Q: The study has several suggestions on what law firms and judges can do to increase the role of women litigators, but what steps can women take to ensure they’re adequately represented at firms and in court?
Scheindlin: Women who are entering the field can be their own best advocate. Women should be very confrontational, calling on their male partners and head of litigation saying ‘I want to be going to court as much as the young guys.’ I think women, first of all, have to be willing to make their own case. Secondly, women who have made it to the upper echelons should try to help their sisters. They should be out there helping younger women try to achieve the same success.