Linda Chanow is executive director of The University of Texas School of Law’s Center for Women in Law. She is a liaison to the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession. She also co-chaired the ABA’s Toolkit for Gender Equity in Partner Compensation, an initiative of the ABA Presidential Task Force on Gender Equity. She talked to Natasha Galvez, liaison to the Commission on Women in the Profession about her career, her work, and about the future of women as legal industry leaders.
Q: What led you to go to law school and to pursue a career in the law?
A: I always wanted to be an agent for change, and I felt that going to law school would give me the greatest ability to do so.
Q: Did you have a specific idea of what career path you would follow to accomplish this goal?
A: I was very interested in civil rights and constitutional issues, and I was also interested in being in the courtroom. I wanted to be a litigator.
Q: You ended up practicing at a big law firm after graduation. What area of law did you practice during that time?
A: I was at Wilmer Cutler & Pickering, which is now Wilmer Hale, and I practiced general litigation, and I did some bankruptcy work, as well.
Q: Were there any shortcomings that you observed during your time practicing big law that drove you to devote your career to focusing on women’s issues? What influenced your decision to step out of practicing law?
A: My career trajectory actually started out a little differently from most people’s. When I was in law school, my property professor, Joan Williams, was one of the leading feminist theorists and she taught property from a gender standpoint – that is, traditionally women didn’t have property rights. I was fascinated by this concept, and by seeing how the law intersected with gender – how the law prevented women from having rights to their own property, how women’s property rights were affected by marriage, etc.
I went to work for Joan Williams immediately after taking her class, and I ended up being her law clerk for all three years of law school. She was writing a book during this time on gender equity and I was very involved in writing one chapter in particular, on the business case for flexibility programs. These areas fascinated me, and so I began to focus on gender equity in the legal profession from a very early stage in law school.
As a 3L, I began one of the first studies ever on part-time lawyers in law firms, and I published this as a first-year lawyer. It was important to me to understand the organizations I was studying and talking about, so I wanted to experience working in a law firm and experience practicing law from a firsthand perspective, so that I could better work to change the profession. The firm that I went to knew that I was engaged in these studies and they were supportive of this report.
One of the findings I did was on starting a family as a lawyer. At the time, I was married with no kids, and I had planned on taking the traditional route, which was to work for five years and wait to have children. However, one of my findings in the study I conducted was that most of the women I interviewed who were successful and happy had had their children very early in their careers or in law school, and they built their practices around their kids, as opposed to inserting their kids into their practice later on.
Many of the women who went the traditional route were having a really hard time adjusting because they had been giving one hundred percent to their law practice and now were struggling to share that time with their kids, and they felt that it was hard to feel like they were adequately doing both. They seemed to struggle with the notion of being both a mom and a lawyer much more acutely than women who had had their kids earlier.
After conducting this study, I decided to start having kids early, and I had two small children by the time I was a third year lawyer at Wilmer. I came back to work part-time after the birth of my first child, and I became an example of how to make part-time work. I was the lead associate of the firm’s Work and Family Committee and helped to draft the policies, and I eventually decided that I wanted to work on these issues full time, and to broaden my work beyond one particular firm.
I started one of the first consulting practices based on gender, and I was later contacted by Joan Williams and became assistant director of her organization, where I was educating and training firms on how to implement flexibility programs effectively. I did this for several years before I was recruited to the University of Texas to run the Center for Women in Law.
Essentially, ending up in my current career was not a switching of gears, but an accumulation of all the work I had done leading up to this.
Q: Although you mentioned that you were always on a trajectory toward a career focused on women in the legal profession, most students enter law school with the intention of becoming a practicing attorney, but it seems surprisingly common that law school graduates go into non-traditional careers. Do you have any advice to law students on when and how they can determine whether an alternative career path is right for them?
A: It is so important for law students to think, first and foremost, about what interests and excites them. There are so many wonderful areas of the law, and we tend to put law students in a box, by telling them either to be a litigator or transactional attorney, without letting them experience the full breadth of the law. I encourage folks to think about which classes interest them while in law school, and to think outside the box— to focus on building a practice around an area that just truly interests them, and not be swayed by the most common areas.
So many people are pushed into litigation, but it is not for everyone. Litigation can be too negative and aggressive for some people and if they go into this field when it is not the right field for them, this can lead to people feeling that practicing law is not right for them at all.
We are trying to focus on getting more women to look at business careers – transactional and finance – really interesting things that women don’t always get the opportunity to explore. I think if we open up more areas to explore, women would feel that there are more career opportunities for them in which they can truly be satisfied.
One of the great things about going to law school is that it sets you up to do so many things. Sometimes people go down these different paths, like becoming a politician, working to set policy, becoming a land commissioner, which are not necessarily opting out of the law. It’s most important to ask what parts of the law interest you, and if you love what you’re doing, opportunities will follow. One of the most important things students can do is to figure out what they like, and some of that comes from figuring out what parts of the law you don’t like.
Q: In your current role as executive director for the Center of Women in Law at UT, what are some of your day-to-day duties, and do you currently do any litigation?
A: I do not do litigation in my current position. The center’s mission is to convene leaders, generate ideas, and lead change on behalf of women lawyers. We are active at the law school but much broader than that as well.
For instance, this morning I spent time on a paper I will be publishing on our national thought leadership, I met with two of my student interns, I met with my staff who are organizing several events at the law school, I had a phone call with the general counsel at a Fortune 500 company about how she and I can combine our initiatives to further advance women in the profession, and I have a meeting later with a prospective student whom I will try to encourage to go to law school.
That’s just what I’ve done in the last six hours, so you can see I have a pretty varied day.
I have seven student interns working for me this semester, one undergraduate and six law students – part of this is mentoring and supporting them, training them and teaching them how to work with practitioners. Since UT is a top fifteen law school, we realize that our students go out into the top organizations nationwide, so we want to impact them and provide mentorship because we know they will go off and lead elsewhere.
Again, our organization is national – we plan national luncheons, annual summits that bring together leaders from around the country, and a consortium for advancing women lawyers which brings together lawyers from all over the country, who are heading organizations dedicated to advancing women in the profession. During the consortium we support each other, learn from one another, and collaborate on initiatives so that together we can move the ball forward more effectively and efficiently.
One of our big initiatives over the last three years is diversity and inclusion among the sectors. Often these organizations have not successfully included diverse women in our constituencies, so we are doing a lot of work here at the law school to include more diverse women and men. This is very time-consuming, as it takes a lot of outreach, but the benefits are extraordinary. I spend a lot of time going to diverse bar association conferences to network and to show support.
Often diverse women feel that they have to choose between their gender and their race, and from what I’ve heard from diverse women, they feel that the barriers associated with race are so much greater and more apparent than those associated with gender, so they feel they must choose race. We are trying to make it easier for diverse women to address the gender aspect, and one of our main goals is to have ten percent women of color as equity partners by the year 2020.
Every day, we also have a conversation about whether we are doing enough, because we don’t want to just add in a diverse speaker- we want diverse women to be part of the fabric of our organization. We would like to see lots of diverse women in our panels. At our summit, last year, just through normal efforts and without thinking about diversity at all, two of our panels were completely diverse. It just happened that we had many diverse women in our pool of speakers, which was very exciting.
I also heavily recruit from the diverse student organizations and meet with the women who are on the boards of these organizations every year, and try to show them all the ways our center can help their organizations, by helping them find diverse speakers, sending them to conferences, etc.
So, as far as our daily activities at the center, addressing this and thinking about making diverse women part of the fabric of our organization is always on our minds. We are always trying to reach out to people.
Q: You also teach a class at UT, which focuses on the gap between the number of women law graduates and the number of women in leadership positions. What are the current trends in this area? Have there been significantly more women coming into these roles in recent years?
A: Paula Monopoli at the University of Maryland created the first ever for-credit course on women in law at a law school, and she shared her curriculum and helped me to create the class I am now teaching.
We have seen huge improvement in the amount of women federal judges, which is about 34-35 percent women. President Obama has appointed the most women judges in history, both in the Supreme Court, and at the lower levels, as well. There have also been big increases in the amount of women who are tenured or tenure-track professors at law schools.
With general counsel, we are at about 24 percent, so almost a quarter of all Fortune 500 companies have women for general counsel, so this number has more than doubled in the past 15 years. And we recently have seen a diverse woman become president of the ABA and chair of the Association of Corporate Counsel.
Unfortunately, there has been barely any increase in the number of women law firm equity partners. There is still a huge gap despite the fact that women have been graduating law school at a proportion of about 50 percent or more for the past 20-plus years. This number has only gone up by about 2 percent in 20 years. For diverse women, they comprise only 3 percent of all partners, and we have not yet seen any progress in the number of women of color equity partners at large law firms, so there is real room for improvement there.
Specifically, where the problems seem to be occurring, is that women at large firms are more isolated and they don’t get the same opportunities as their male colleagues. Women go into law firms with equal footing, but within a year, men and women don’t have the same level of experience and since the men appear much more experienced than the women, they are given more opportunities accordingly.
Q: Do you think one of the reasons for this lack of increase in women equity partners at large firms is due to the long hours and demanding schedules of large firms, and the struggle to find a balance between work and motherhood?
A: Yes, there will always be this struggle. However, there are some firms that are really getting this right, and taking the long-term view about flexibility, that is, allowing women to step back at certain points in their career while keeping them engaged in the firm and the practice, has tremendous payoffs.
There is also the issue we call “trimming sails,” which comes even more strongly into play during a recession when firms can only afford to hire a limited number of attorneys. Firms want to hire the people who they “believe” will stay there the longest, and often they believe that men will stay longer than women. I’ve had senior male partners tell me that they want to hire, mentor, and spend their time on people they believe are going to stay at the firm, and often this means choosing to spend time on a male associate because the partner has observed many female associates coming and going.
This becomes very self-fulfilling because if you don’t mentor and support women then they will not stay. One of the most fascinating things I am seeing now is women with small children leaving large firms and starting their own practices which are busy and thriving.
They are not leaving big law because they want to work less. Rather, they want to work smarter and differently, but they are still working long hours and providing excellent services to clients. They are building careers that they would not have the opportunities to build at a large firm. It is more their ambition that has caused them to leave, rather than a busy home life. I think we will see many of these firms pop up in the next ten to fifteen years and start to play a major role in the profession.
Another reason women are leaving large firms, even at the partner level, is that pay equity is still a major problem. Anyone would leave when they see that someone else is compensated significantly more than them, because it is a direct reflection of how much the firm values them. Being paid less than men undercuts women’s sense of being valued. This factor weighs so heavily in contributing to the departure of women from firms.
Q: What suggestions do you have for law students about what they can do, either while in law school or as beginning attorneys, to help bridge this gap for women?
A: The most important piece is to figure out what area of the law interests you, and then ask what are the problems you want to help solve. You have to address the ambition piece before you can address anything else. The stronger your practice, the easier it is to negotiate flexibility. So first, you have to build your practice, develop your craft as a lawyer, and go down the road you want to go down, and then you can work on the flexibility part of it. Developing your craft is the most critical thing you can do as a lawyer straight out of law school.