Monday, October 31, 2011

Beware the Female Biglaw Partner

When I worked in biglaw, I always tried to avoid working for female partners.  It sounds odd, right? I mean, as a female associate, shouldn't I have sought out female mentors?  Women who had been in my position, and overcome massive obstacles and somehow learned to balance work and family?


As it turns out, I'm not alone.

According to a recent article in the ABA Journal, not one of the 142 legal secretaries surveyed preferred to work for a female partner.  Not one!  Ninety five percent of the secretaries surveyed were women.

I can't say that I'm surprised.  At all.  From my experience (and this is ONLY my experience), the majority of female partners I came across were not pleasant to work for, and I avoided them to every extent possible.  In fact, at my last firm I was more than happy to join a group where ever single partner was male.  Why?  Because over my five years at law firms, I found that most female partners fell into one of the following categories:

1) The aggressive bitch.  This is the partner who doesn't think twice about yelling and verbally assaulting anyone around her.  This includes associates, secretaries, and black car drivers (I've seen this firsthand).  They are bitter and pissed and unapologetic.  They are scary, scary people.

2) The passive aggressive bitch. This is perhaps worse than the aggressive bitch, because you think this woman is your friend.  She takes you to lunch and gives advice and asks about your family.  But then, when you least expect it, comes the sting.  The sting is an insult that you can't even tell is an insult and it's usually personal:  Wow, you are so stupid. To let you know how stupid you are, I'm going to let a senior associate deliver this message for me.  Or: You really shouldn't leave before 6:30.  I'm not going to tell you that, but I'm going to give you subtle, semi-rude emails to let you know that that's not acceptable. 

3) The tuned out indifferent bitch.  This is the partner that is so busy, both with work and family, that they don't have time for anything.  They give you an assignment with a 24 hour deadline, but it takes them weeks to actually look at your work.  When they finally do have an opportunity to review your work, usually late at night, they realize they had the research question all wrong.  So, around midnight on a Tuesday, they will email you follow up questions, to be completed by 9am the next day (despite the fact that it won't be looked at for another week).  This partner is not trying to be mean, but hey, they got assignments at midnight when they were associates.  So you will too.

There obviously are exceptions.  My husband is actually lucky enough to work for one such exception, and I LOVE her.  But there aren't many.

So why is it that there are so many female partners like this?

Part of it is understandable.  These women have had to overcome a lot.  They have scaled the ladder in an industry where men make up the large majority of law firm partners.  To achieve this, they no doubt have worked long hours, been verbally abused themselves, and given up time with their families or even having a family at all.  As a result, I think many of them are bitter, particularly towards other women in the workplace.  You need to get home to put your kids to bed tonight? Too bad.  I'm not seeing my kids either  You need to leave to take your kid to a doctors appointment?  Hire an au pair.  That's what I did.  Or: You mean you actually decided to be a mother and a lawyer?  I didn't.  I decided to become a super powerful partner instead and forgo a family.  So man up.

Male partners, on the other hand, I found to be much more understanding.  Sure, there are some abusive jerks, but overall, they were not as hostile to female associates.  Perhaps it's because many of them rely on their wives to carry the burden of childcare, since they are working all of the time.  And because of that, there is an underlying sentiment, particularly of older male partners, that when it comes to kids, it's a women's job.  This is obviously antiquated and conservative and not something that I necessarily believe.  But you know what?  It benefited me.  When I asked for a part time schedule after Braden was born, I have to admit that I was somewhat relieved to know that the person approving that was a conservative man in his late fifties who deep down probably thought I should be staying home with my kid anyway.  It may not have been helpful for my partnership prospects, but at the time, I didn't care.  And ultimately, I'll never know.

Biglaw life changes you.  Stress changes you. Fitting into a male dominated industry changes you. The sacrifices these women have had to make change you.  Who knows what I would have been like had I stayed.  Would my secretary have hated me?

It's a sad state.  Women should support each other and build each other up.  But in the law firm world, that's just not reality.  

I hope that someday things change, but I'm not optimistic.  And so, in all honesty, when the day comes that I try to reenter the workforce,  I will hope, pray, and cross my fingers that the person interviewing me is a man.


  1. I was at a big law firm for four years and did find most of the female partners vile. However, a few years ago I moved to a mid-sized firm, and this has not been the case. Most of the female partners have been friendly and a pleasure to work with. Maybe it has to do with the size of the firm.

  2. I just discussed this exact issue with my male boss-so sad that we are own worst enemies and female partners feel the need to tear us down rather than mentor us. and personally I believe the passive aggressive bitch is the WORST

  3. I worked at Skadden Boston in the early 2000s and must say, I regret never having had the chance to work under Peggy Brown. She was a hard-working, yet compassionate person, not one of the many partners who somehow thrived by intimidation. I think she's actually now the managing partner at that office, and it's good to see that you don't have to fit under one of the categories you mentioned in your post in order to advance professionally.

  4. @ 2:54. You are right - there are definitely some exceptions. And they rock. I hadn't heard of Peggy Brown, but I do know of a few awesome female partners at both of my previous firms.

  5. I did a few summer internships and I definitely found this to be true, even with associates, even as a law student. I remember going in as a sloppy puppy, all, SOLIDARITY! And the female associate I was assigned to looked at me so frigidly that I froze in my tracks. Yikes! So much to prove, so much pressure. It doesn't make for a friendly atmosphere.

  6. I've said it before and I'll say it again. I left my small firm with its big firm hours and mentality and I work for myself. I don't make BigLaw money, but I do fine for someone who works less than 40 hours per week. I am thinking about taking a few years off during my child's middle school years and as I have told my husband it isn't like I need somebody to give me a job when I am ready to go back to work. I just have sign some papers and write a few checks. The best way to win the game is not to play.

  7. @10:50pm - There is something so appealing about going solo, but it seems so OVERWHELMING. If you're still reading - how did you get started?

  8. this is so true. so depressing but so so true.

  9. It is far less overwhelming than working for an unreasonable employer. Trust me. I know. My employer took a stand with me one afternoon and I had simply had enough (after many, many years of sacrifice and gut wrenching hard work). I knew I could open my own firm within a few days with about 10 phone calls and a few forms. I told my husband about my employer's latest unreasonableness and said I was quitting. The following week I gave notice and a month later I went to work for myself. The first few months were scary, but in month 4 I started to make money. It has just as many challenges as working for someone else, but I work less (a lot less), have nearly complete control over my schedule, and I make the same or more money. Plus, if I want to take a few years off for middle school, I don't need anyone to give me a job when I am ready to return to work. I think solos can be very attractive to almost any client since your overhead is lower, you can charge less which can be hugely attractive in this economy.

  10. There are men who fit into all these categories too. I think I hate #3 the most because it affects my life the most. It's hard, because women are still such a small sample size - the stinkers really stick out so much more than for men. I think it's easy to become overly aggressive, busy, or passive aggressive as a result of trying to fit into the old boys' network. It's a stressful process for women more so than men, and we realize later in our careers that just doing good work isn't enough. I'm convinced that it doesn't have to be that way though. I think things are changing and they are realizing that it's to their advantage to let us in and not make us ask so hard.

  11. I would love to find a firm where the majority of the partners were women. In that case I think the culture of the organization would be influenced by more feminine values. When a majority of men are partners, the female partners have to try to fit in and not lose their place in the highly competitive hierarchical male culture.

  12. Another interesting post. I work in biglaw where the chair of my department and office are both women and, while they are wonderful people and fun to socialize with, they are definitely in category three. And I agree with the commenter who said that category affects her life the most - mine too. So many firedrills and for no reason since the work often isn't reviewed for days or weeks after it was due. And I have heard SO many female partners and senior associates say what the author said - "so? I didn't see my kids either" or "hire an au pair - that's what I did." But then again - I feel like I shouldn't complain b/c that's why you make the big bucks in biglaw and I figure if I want more of a life, I should take the pay cut and go into the government . . . though I hope there might be a middle ground since my husband and I have such enormous combined law school debt . . . not sure if such a middle ground exists. Interviewing with some smaller firms to see if that might be better . . .

  13. I was a big firm equity partner & am female. After fighting 20 plus years in large firms for resources and bonuses for my team of associates, and bringing in literally millions of dollars of business that I originated, I left to start my own firm. Why? When push came to shove, and I needed management backup against a blatant effort by one of my male partners in another city to grab billing control of a client I originated and was managing, I could not get management to tell him to back off. I didn't expect to be free of greedy takeover attempts from other partners -- that seems to be standard practice for a minority of jerk lawyers -- but ultimately it is management's job to determine and to enforce a firm's culture. I have paid a financial price as a result of leaving, but am making enough money to pay my bills, and am slowly growing my practice again. (In my area, institutional clients predominate, and despite their general complaints about big law firm fees, their in house counsel tend to want to use big law firms, so it can be a challenge to get them to use lawyers in a small firm, even if they've used those identical lawyers before.) I know a lot of women partners are toxic, but a fair number are not; the same is true of male partners. The biggest challenge to women lawyers is that, as a woman advances, if she is not a bitch, her male colleagues increasingly try to undermine her to increase their share of credit at her expense, because a woman partner who is polite and fair is seen as a juicy target for the bullying tactics used by certain law firm partners against weaker lawyers to extract more money and other benefits from their law firms.

  14. Good article. Have been working for over three years for a category 2 - the worst kind, who brings you down behind your back and then is nice to your face.
    You are putting in the time and effort and the hours and getting good results but she doesn't want to promote you (being a direct threat)- so you get the occassional funny look from people which tells you that she has been bitching behind your back (for no particular reason at all).
    Still figuring out how to combat it, I am now thinking the best thing to do is to leave...


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