Overcoming Ourselves: Challenges Facing Females Entering the Legal Profession Today

by Heather M. Ward

I entered the legal profession in 2008.  Like almost every other law graduate at the time, I struggled initially to find any job, let alone landing the job that I had dreamed of since I was a little kid.  You see, I wanted to be a civil rights lawyer.  In particular, I wanted to pursue gender and race discrimination cases.

But then, the economy tanked.  Law firms in Boston that handled civil rights litigation were laying-off attorneys, not hiring them.  State agencies such as the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination that were dedicated to “preventing and eradicating discrimination in the Commonwealth” were on a hiring freeze.  Newly minted male and female attorneys alike found themselves in a position not many new attorneys experienced before: unemployment.

Of course, young female attorneys have faced employment quandaries in the past.  When female lawyers entered the profession on a more mainstream basis several decades ago, even the best of us faced hardships with landing a job.  I remember hearing Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor recounting her story of how, when she graduated law school, no one wanted to hire her as an attorney because of her gender.  We all know how that story turns out.  Back to the present, it was the economy that initially stunted my ability to find employment as a litigator, not my gender.

Although I do not currently practice civil rights law, I have found my niche in family law.  I realized that in this economy, in order to practice law professionally and not be a “slave to the man,” I needed to go out and hang my own shingle, as they say.  I tired of waiting for the perfect dream job to fall in my lap.  That was just not realistic.  I needed to get out there and create my own dream job.  I have never relied on a man for anything in the past, so why should employment be any different?  It is this mental hurdle as a young female lawyer that was the hardest to overcome to get to where I am today.

Being your own boss is incredibly liberating and rewarding.  I soon befriended a handful of other female litigators.  I found that more experienced female lawyers enjoy mentoring younger women and become a resource.  Moreover, I find that female lawyers do not play the same games as male lawyers when it comes to seeking guidance.  For example, when a female colleague offers me legal advice, I know she is doing it for genuine reasons.  Unless I have a pre-existing professional relationship with my male colleagues, when one offers me his “help,” he is often just trying to score a date and pass it off as professional assistance.

Today the courtroom is still primarily filled with male attorneys.  I am happy to report, however, that in Probate & Family Court, female attorneys are more common to see than in other courts where I practice.  Unlike my female predecessors, I believe that the overt sexism that existed in the courtroom decades ago is rare to find in the Commonwealth.  Generally speaking, I receive the same respect in court from male judges and opposing counsel as I do from my sisters.

Although women have had the ability to practice law for decades now, many choose not to for one reason or another.  Even in 2012, many female attorneys choose to practice for several years and then go on a hiatus from the field to raise children or tend to their family.  Of course, many women leave the practice after becoming burnt out from the profession.  Many mid- and large-sized firms expect their associates to work hours on end.  One colleague of mine, a young female second-year associate at a large Boston law firm, has told me that she considers herself burnt out.  And rightly so.  She works 80 hours a week.  I am inclined to believe that this expectation of “job performance” also existed in the 1960’s and 1970’s.  The difference now is that, if one loses her job at a firm, it may be months before she becomes employed elsewhere.  As we all know, employment for attorneys is far from guaranteed today.

The only way we women are going to be able to increase our presence in the legal profession is to encourage and mentor one another.  Women have the reputation: that we compete with one another.  However, the only way we will succeed in a profession still dominated by men is to support one another as we move forward and cheer on everyone’s success.  The legal profession has forever changed recently.  No longer can one’s alma mater or prestigious internship guarantee success as an attorney.  You will find that your network of female attorney colleagues and friends will be an invaluable asset to your success in the future.

Heather Ward is a solo practitioner in Boston.  She joined the Guild in 2011 and now serves on the Lawyer Referral Service Committee.

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