On Female Lawyers at BigLaw and 'Great Expectations'

By Gabriella Khorasanee, JD on November 15, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

In 2001, The New York Times interviewed 21 female attorneys at Debevoise & Plimpton. Seventeen women were incoming first-year associates, two women were from the 1991 class of associates (three of 24 women remained), and two others were from the 1981 class of associates (only two of the original 13 remained). The women spoke of their "great expectations" -- whether they expected to make partner, and gender differences in the workplace.

Fast-forward 12 years later, and the Times caught up with some of the women interviewed in 2001. The result is an Op-Doc (the NYT's abbreviation for "opinionated documentary") called "Great Expectations for Female Lawyers," which features some of the women originally highlighted in the 2001 article. As they reflect on their answers, you can see that some have a bit of regret, or perhaps nostalgia for long-gone naivete. As someone who entered BigLaw in New York City around the same time (2000), I found this piece especially moving, and a necessary watch for any female BigLaw associate.

Take five minutes to stop billing and watch -- but if you can't for now, here are my favorite take-aways. It all comes down to the choices you make.

1. Your Partner.

"The first thing you need is a great partner," Mary Beth Hogan, a partner at Debevoise & Plimpton, told the Times. Hogan credited her ability to become partner, in large part, to having a supportive husband. Sound familiar? It should. This is one of Sheryl Sandberg's points in "Lean In." Having a supportive partner can mean everything to the success of your career.

2. Your Firm.

Hogan also stresses the need to find a supportive workplace. There are firms that score well as places for women to work -- try to work at one of these firms -- or try to convince your firm to adopt some of their methods to make your firm more responsive to the needs of women.

3. Your Choices.

Can women have it all? Maybe you should not ask whether you can have it all, but rather, do you want to sacrifice what it takes to have it all? That's up to you to figure out. As Maggie Spillane says in the Op-Doc, "You have to really, really, really need to love working really, really, really hard."

Many women feel like they can't have the work-life balance that men can. Sure you can. If you work at BigLaw, then you can afford a nanny. The question is, are you OK with only seeing your kids as much as the male partners at your firm? That's where things usually get a little fuzzy. You can't be a partner, and be home with your kids -- that goes for men and women.

Sure, women face many obstacles in the legal industry, especially at BigLaw. But, if we frame the issues as choices we are willing to make, rather than characterizing ourselves as victims, this change of perspective may be empowering enough to propel us further in our careers.

Have you watched the Times' Op-Doc "Great Expectations for Female Lawyers"? What did you think? Let us know by tweeting us @FindLawLP.

Editor's Note, March 5, 2015: This post was first published in November 2013. It has since been updated.

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