Big Law Is Still an Old Boys’ Club
The legal industry needs to come to terms with its gender bias, unconscious or not
On HBO’s hit series Insecure, Molly is a Type A third-year associate in Biglaw, a colloquialism for the world’s top law firms. On season two, Molly mistakenly receives the paycheck of her white male coworker, a slacker, and realizes that he makes significantly more money than she does. In earlier episodes, Molly struggles to bond with the firm’s powerful, white male partners who seem to care only about golf. These scenes demonstrate Biglaw’s seemingly impenetrable glass ceiling, as well as how it remains an “old boys’ club.”
While sexism is not exclusive to any one industry, it is more prevalent in historically male-dominated spheres like law. For example, in Bradwell v. Illinois (1873), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Illinois’ right to prohibit women from practicing law on the basis of their sex, illustrating how women were historically discouraged or barred entirely from studying and/or practicing law. Unfortunately, Biglaw hasn’t done much to counteract the the field’s history of female exclusion. This is particularly disheartening given most women I spoke to while researching this article told me they entered the profession not to gain power or fortune, but rather to combat injustice. Keep in mind that a Biglaw job is typically needed to pay off staggering law school debt, where being $200,000 in the hole isn’t unreasonable.
“Most major U.S. law firms were founded by, and initially employed only, white men,” legal reporter Stephanie Russell-Kraft wrote this fall in Bloomberg’s Big Law Business, citing a conversation with Sheri Zachary, director of career development and inclusion at Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr, LLP. “Now, as women and people of color have entered the ranks, they’re bumping up against ingrained power structures and obstacles to their career advancement.” As the work of corporate lawyers “impacts nearly every realm of business,” Russell-Kraft told me, “it has ripple effects” when corporate lawyers are predominantly white men. Likewise, Biglaw litigators shape the law, which, for obvious reasons, should not merely reflect the perspective of white men.
My friend Sarah*, who worked for four years in Biglaw before moving to a smaller firm…