The More Things Change…

No girls!Today’s interview is with Kate McGuinness, who joined the legal profession in the 1970s, when things looked quite different than they do today. Once a BigLaw partner and now a writer and women’s rights activist, she’s got fascinating stories to tell about what’s changed, and, sadly, how much hasn’t changed as fast as she’d hoped.

Take it away!

Alison: There are a lot more women in the legal profession today than there were when you graduated from law school. At the same time, the number of women in positions of real power in the legal profession remains stubbornly low. In your experience, how have things changed for women lawyers? What’s stayed the same? What, if anything, has surprised you about the pace of change?

Kate: I started practicing law in 1977, when female lawyers in practices other than trusts and estates were somewhat of a novelty at BigLaw.

The BigLaw firm I joined had one female partner, and several years passed before another woman was invited to join the partnership.

I joined the Corporations department and was soon negotiating transactions. I was a tough, no-holds barred negotiator. Male lawyers and clients initially were taken aback to deal with a petite, attractive, but decidedly assertive, female. The unexpected dichotomy continued to be effective — albeit with decreasing impact — for a number of years.

The presence of a female in a significant role remained noteworthy for a longer time. Shortly after I made partner in 1985, I represented the lead bank in a $9 billion leveraged buyout.

At the opening of the meeting in which the final details were to be hammered out, the businessman hosting the gathering congratulated the other men present for being egalitarian enough to include a woman in their powwow.

During those eight years and beyond, there were many public instances of inequity. When clients wished to take me to lunch at the city’s elite social club, they were forced to make reservations in the literally pink dining room (the only one where women were allowed), and I was forced to enter the building through a rear portal. Nonetheless, this treatment was superior to that which I received at another private social club. There, the maître d’ summoned me to a cloakroom and insisted I wrap a cotton gingham skirt around my waist to cover the lower portion of my stylish pants suit.

More troubling than blatant forms of discrimination were the subtle forms that took place and I believe continue.

BigLaw seems to believe that women lawyers are a different, less able group. I was the first woman at my BigLaw firm to receive a bonus. A member of the compensation committee delivered the news and said that I was a “model young partner. And I don’t mean just female partner. You’re a model for any partner.” His words implied to me that there was a different and lower standard for female partners.

The belief (probably unconscious) that women are less capable lawyers seems to continue.

The number of female equity partners at major firms has hovered around 15 percent for the last twenty years. This ceiling is especially troubling given women have constituted at least 40 percent of enrolling law students since 1985. BigLaw is increasingly employing non-partner track attorneys, i.e., contract or staff lawyers.

Women represent more than a majority of these dead-end positions.

The 2011 survey of the country’s 200 largest law firms by the National Association of Women Lawyers considered other markers of women’s status. Of the 121 firms responding, 77 percent have at most two women on their governing bodies, which typically have ten members. Worse, female equity partners on average earn only 86% of the amount their male peers earn.

On the plus side, I believe that many law firms have instituted diversity sensitivity training and adopted policies banning sexual harassment. However, I question whether these policies have changed the (nonconsensual) interactions that take place behind closed office doors.

Overall, I am surprised and disappointed that the pace of change in women’s status and compensation has been so slow.

I’m a female law student who’s thinking of going into BigLaw. What are the three most critical factors for me to consider, before I accept an offer?

#1: Family planning. How soon do you anticipate starting a family? How many children do you plan to have before you satisfy the stated period to be considered for partnership?

My prioritization of this issue entails more than personal knowledge of the stress and time demands of family. (Because of my spouse’s reservations about my ability to balance work and parenting, I postponed starting a family until after I made partner.)

Ms. JD recently reported the case of a senior female associate with a fancy academic pedigree who satisfied all the usual criteria for partnership: hardworking, broad experience, and good rapport with partners and clients. She was also told consistently in reviews she was on track for partnership. She didn’t make it. The reason expressed was that she had taken two maternity leaves. Blatant discrimination.

#2: If you have a spouse, how demanding is his or her job? A supportive spouse is important especially if you’re planning on having children. But even without children, the ordinary tasks of running a household may take time you simply don’t have if you’re working on a big trial or transaction. Disorder that you might be willing to tolerate on your own may irk your spouse. Will your spouse be able to pick up the slack? Will he or she resent having to do so?

#3: How much of your ego and/or financial planning is wrapped up in working at BigLaw? This question goes to how difficult it will be to walk away if life at BigLaw proves too unpleasant.

Could you talk a bit about what you do in the average day at work, and how it’s similar to (or different from) what you thought you’d be doing when you started law school?

I campaign for women’s rights through a variety of media. I spend at least 90 minutes researching and composing tweets. You can find me on Twitter at @womnsrightswrtr and on Facebook. Also, I’m working on my website (Women’s Rights Writer) that contains resources on women’s rights, a weekly quiz on women’s history and a list of volunteer opportunities for those interested in advancing women’s rights.

I’m in the final stages of publishing Terminal Ambition, a legal suspense novel that features a woman partner whose battle for gender equity at her BigLaw firm threatens the chairman’s quest to become Attorney General. Terminal Ambition includes an appendix explaining women’s rights to be free of discrimination and harassment in the workplace and detailed action steps to take if women encounter such problems.

Also, I enjoy long walks with my dogs, strength training and reading.

I had no fixed vision of what I would be doing at this stage in my life when I started law school.

In truth, I had never even met a lawyer and enrolled in law school when other careers were closed to me because I was a woman.

— – —

Thanks, Kate! Can’t wait to read the novel!

Have questions for Kate? Leave them in the comments!

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  1. Kate,

    What a wonderful interview—-such a pleasure to meet a kindred spirit who traveled a similar route through the BigLaw maze. (My question: did you hold your ground against those weird late seventies blouses with little ties at the neck?) Your remarks track precisely my impressions of the challenges faced by women lawyers in large firms over the past few decades. Like you, I would never have expected things to have changed so very little since 1979, when I started practice. I am especially impressed by the practical and straightforward advice you offer at the end of the interview, and hope it will be widely read.

    I’ll be following you on Twitter and am anxious to read Terminal Ambition! All the best!


    Your interviews are terrific. You are the best thing to happen to our sliver of the Twitterverse in ages. You’re making a tangible contribution. Not easy to do.


    • Betsy, I’m so honored! I just got a little teary-eyed reading your nice comment.

    • Betsy,

      It’s nice to hear from someone else who took the road “less traveled by.” I like your metaphor of the BigLaw maze. As I battled toward partnership, I visualized it as running hurdles through a viscous fluid!

      Yes, I confess to wearing the strange blouses and ties. For the uninitiated, the “ties” were a 1 1/2″ wide band of fairly heavy weight silk fabric that circled the base of the throat and had a a gathered circle of the same material at the center rather like an open rose.

      The blouses and ties were weird, but I remember my delight when stores began to carry clothes appropriate for women lawyers. In 1977, the choices tended to be house dresses or cocktail dresses.
      Another female associate was taken to task by a male partner for dressing too much like a housewife.

      Thanks for the vote of confidence about my advice. I didn’t want to be overly negative, but a woman aiming to succeed at BigLaw will encounter lots of bumps along the way.

      I appreciate your interest in Terminal Ambition. Usually authors begin to write with a plot or at least a character in mind. My goal was to construct an engaging story that educated women about their workplace rights. I hope I’ve succeeded.


  2. Alison, thanks for including an interview like this as part of the discussion around law school and becoming a lawyer. My mom is an attorney who was licensed in 1980 and she has some incredible stories to tell. When they moved to a smallish town (in CA) she and my dad (also an attorney) went to a bar association event where male attorneys would tip the chairs at the table so they wouldn’t sit with them – just because she was also a lawyer. I am so thankful to her and the other female attorneys that have come before me for making my entry into the legal profession much easier.

    • That is a crazy story! Yes, definitely worth reflecting on the indignities we don’t have to suffer, even if there’s room for improvement.

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