We’re All the Same, so What’s the Difference?

This CMCP issue celebrates women’s heritage month, and for California women in the law, there’s a lot to celebrate. Not only are women rising to the top, but minority women are hitting the bulls eye. California Supreme Court Chief Justice, Tani Cantil-Sakauye, is the first minority woman to serve as Chief Justice and only the second woman Chief Justice in California’s history. California voters also elected a minority woman Attorney General, and Kamala Harris is California’s first female, African-American and Asian American Attorney General. With California’s top jurist and top prosecutor positions filled by minority women, I did a personal look-back at my experience with women in the legal practice.

In the Fall of 2000 – when I entered UC Hastings – women outnumbered men in our 1L class. As female matriculation in law schools increased, so did the population of female law school deans.1 M Across the country, the female student body in law schools steadily rose until it peaked in 2006. Since that time, their enrollment has slowly declined with 45.9% of all law school graduates being women.

Research shows that men still outnumber women in big law firms, particularly in equity partnership ranks. If those women aren’t equity partners, where are they? Traditional wisdom would suggest that women are opting out of firm life and leadership roles for personal reasons. Often times, women are still in charge of the kids and home in addition to their professional responsibilities. For this reason, many women opt for a more flexible part time schedule or leave the law altogether. But that does not account for all the women missing at the top of law firm management or partnership. 45.5 % of associates in law firms are women. So why are only 15% of equity partners women?

One explanation is the public sector. Women are making steady progress in the ranks of the judiciary as well as serving as deputy district attorneys, public defenders and assistant US attorneys. Not only are they well-represented in the public sector, women are rising to the top. Seven states have a female chief justice in their state supreme court.2 In 2010, the American Bar Association reported twenty states with female Attorney Generals.3 And, there are twenty-three female U.S. Attorneys in the United States4 — significantly, two are here in California, namely Laura Duffey in the Southern District, and Melinda Haag in the Northern District.

So why are women achieving the top jobs in the public sector but not at big law firms? There are many reasons and explanations. Perhaps careers in the judiciary or public office offer more of the “work-life balance” that those in big firms are unable to match. Perhaps women in big law firms are being “pushed out” for reasons that disproportionately affect women lawyers as compared to their male counterparts. However, that doesn’t explain women like Kamala Harris who opted for the Alameda District Attorney’s Office right out of law school. Are minority women seeking jobs outside of big law firms, and if so, why? Do traditional big law firms simply not appeal to minority women? For those women in big firms, what are the reasons that they are electing not to, or not being asked to, join the equity partnership? The issue is complicated, and worthy of significant discourse – without asking the questions regularly and persistently, we may never have an answer.

Lisa Freitas is an Associate at
Sideman & Bancroft LLP
lfreitas@sideman.com; 415-392-1960