By Lorelie S. Masters, Partner, Jenner & Block, LLP
Much has been written about why women lawyers leave law firms in disproportionately high numbers. Much less has been written about why women lawyers stay. To understand why women lawyers leave law firms in disproportionately high numbers, it is crucial to understand why lawyers, regardless of gender, stay.
While I was in law school, and in the early years of my career, I faced the question of why I wanted to be a lawyer. Although this question has fallen out of favor, the assumptions that underlie it continue to dog women. Women lawyers want what all lawyers want: a challenging career, success, status, recognition of one’s efforts and talents, personal and professional satisfaction, the ability to provide for oneself and one’s family, and the opportunity to make a mark in one’s community.
Women law firm partners have much to gain—and offer—if we “opt in.” I have found that a long tenure in a law firm gives me a seat at the table, a place from which to attempt to effect change on a most immediate and personal level—in my own firm. I can voice my views on the future of my firm, and, on a very “local” level, the future of the legal profession, by having, and keeping, my seat at the table. I can serve as a role model for those who follow, and, similarly, I can learn from the accomplished and enthusiastic women lawyers who come to our firm today.
With the support of my firm, I can, and do, participate in issues important to my hometown, Washington, D.C., and represent individuals pro bono. I can applaud the successes of my colleagues, and, from the vantage point of more than two decades of practice, appreciate the impact that one dedicated lawyer, or a group of like-minded lawyers, can have on important issues of our time. I can help provide guidance and mentoring to the women lawyers who follow me, both of which were sadly lacking when I took my first law firm job two decades ago. I can offer a sympathetic ear to my women colleagues when they face a difficult legal issue, or personal obstacle, as they navigate their careers.
It is important for those of us who have “opted in” to make this case to our younger women colleagues: you can achieve great success, recognition, and satisfaction in a law firm. You can rear happy and successful children with the support of your colleagues and family. And, as shown by the many successes of my women colleagues at Jenner & Block, you can make a lasting, significant impact on the law and our society.
As partners who have “opted in,” we should encourage our firms to ensure a level playing field for all lawyers and encourage those who follow us to continue to voice their concerns to effect constructive change in our law firms. Doing so will help ensure that more women will follow our lead and create more role models and more positive change for our daughters and our society.
Research shows that empowering women leads to stronger families and more successful children and communities. Greater numbers of successful women lawyers, supported by their law firms, can help not just women lawyers achieve success and satisfaction but, with their focus on the greater good, can help all women pursue their dreams.
Lorelie S. Masters, a partner in the Washington, D.C. office of Jenner & Block LLP, focuses on advising policyholders and representing them in disputes with their insurers. She served as President of the Women’s Bar Association of the District of Columbia and currently serves on the American Bar Association’s Commission on Women in the Profession, co-chairing its Women of Color Subcommittee. Under her direction as President in 2007-2008, the WBA’s Initiative on Advancement and Retention of Women published the second of its nationally recognized reports, “Creating Pathways to Success for All” (available at www.wbadc.org).