35-22-30. Measurements of an old-school pinup girl, sure. But my point in raising those numbers is a different one. These numbers can actually be used to highlight the special challenges that most women, in particular those who have or want families, face in Biglaw (i.e., very large firms that pay top salaries). I think it is still safe to assume that such women are the majority.
There has been a lot of talk lately about the progress of women in Biglaw, as measured by the amount of equity women partners at Biglaw firms and the like. First things first. Biglaw is no longer a man's club in terms of opportunity. Female associates get hired, and fired, and choose to leave, just like male associates. They get made partner, included on pitches, and in some cases lead their firms. All great — no reason not to tap into the entirety of the human gene pool in order to make more money. Biglaw is a business after all. And there is no dispute that women, at all levels, can contribute to the success of Biglaw — and do.
But in over a decade in Biglaw, I have heard, and seen, horror stories of never-married, very successful professional women, who are desperate to start families, but attract only a parade of gold-diggers, the socially inept, or other undesirables….
(It does appear that a woman's career success does not do as much for her desirability as a man's does for his. In short, when assessing a woman's mating potential, looks matter more, and age is not a woman's friend on that front. One thing many Biglaw women need to remember is that there is no excuse for not looking their best; stylish and impeccable clothes, makeup, and hair can only help, on both the professional and personal front. Money is not an excuse, and time should not be. Less of an issue for guys, but still important, as discussed generally in my weight issues column.)
I am speaking generally, of course, and nothing said above means that women can't be successful personally and professionally as Biglaw attorneys. At the same time, though, I look around, and I do not see many female partners. Rarer still are female full-time partners, who made partner on the traditional track, with young families. What I have seen is many fine female lawyers, especially those with young families, move in-house or go part-time. And single female lawyers who visibly struggle with the demands of Biglaw, and can't cope successfully. The ones that stick around continue working demanding hours, have no social lives, and start engaging in cheap office flings for lack of better opportunities. Until they can't take it anymore and disappear. It is hard to watch.
Who stays in the game? Women, often of the high-testosterone type, that don't want children or families. Or part-time partners. Or women who have done the family-first approach, and arrive at Biglaw a little later in the normal cycle. I find the last cohort to be the most agreeable, and frequently the easiest to work with.
Anyway, let's take a look at the numbers again, 35-22-30 — this time in the context of a typical Biglaw timeline. For most Biglaw lawyers, 35 is around the age where you are up or have just made partner, assuming you went to law school right after college or thereabouts. At 22, our typical Biglaw person is probably graduating college, or just starting law school if they were A.P.-taking beasts in high school. By 30, they likely have a few years at Biglaw under their belt, and are deciding (or are being told) whether or not they are on track to make partner. If they are on track, they are extremely busy, and facing a brutal stretch as a senior associate or of counsel to prove their worthiness for partnership. If they are not on track, they are probably looking to lateral, or exploring going in-house, or looking to become interior designers.
As a man, the 35-22-30 timeline is a pretty flexible one. Our male Biglaw partner at 35 may already have a family, and may now be able to dedicate more time and resources to them because of his new position. Or he may still be single, and should rightly be cleaning up on the dating scene or carefully considering someone to settle down with.
(As an aside: If you are 35, a male partner in Biglaw, in reasonable health, and can't get dates, you likely need professional help. I would start with a trainer, a good therapist, and getting your own apartment. You can afford all these measures, and should take them immediately. If you don't, and if you are currently pending all your time bossing associates around at the office, we will likely be reading about something crazy you did on Above the Law sometime soon.)
For men, the ages of 22 and 30 should be no problem on the professional/personal front either. For many 22-year old guys, both the end of college and law school itself can be very rewarding times on the social front. Others may be getting more serious with college girlfriends and contemplating early marriage. All fine. Pretty much the same calculus applies for male associates at 30. Sure you are busy, but there is no reason why the professional/personal phases of your life can't co-exist in relative peace.
But Biglaw women, especially women who hope to have a family and career, have it harder. Let's look at the numbers 35-22-30 from the perspective of a professional woman, such as a Biglaw attorney. By age 35, your fertility has declined to the point that even if you freeze your eggs at that age, your chances of having a child are less than half (I have seen studies that recommend 32 as the age where women should freeze their eggs if they want to have children). And studies show that the peak of a female's attractiveness to heterosexual men is around age 22 — if not younger. Despite these realities, 30 is around the actual average age that professional women marry for the first time.
The incongruities with the Biglaw timeline I laid out above are stunning. Simply put, women hoping to make partner in Biglaw face serious personal decisions, with lifelong consequences, much earlier and with more frequency than their male colleagues do. It starts with the decision to go to law school, where at least some consideration has to be given to the fact that — at that age — your average woman is at her most attractive to the largest pool of eligible men she will ever be considered by. Spending those years "off the market" could have consequences, as generally the pool of men only gets smaller for women as time goes by.
Likewise, consider how difficult it would be for a Biglaw female associate to get married at the average age of 30, especially if she is on the partner track. The more likely scenario is that she is either married already (and thus delaying her fertility) or married to her job (and thus further delaying entry into the marriageable pool until she is older and presumably faces more competition while being even less attractive). By 35, she is already living with serious fertility challenges, even if she is lucky enough by that age to find someone suitable to start a family with.
Biglaw is a slightly crazy way to make a living to begin with. The lifestyle is challenging on many levels. I have already talked about the challenges I faced as a young father balancing the demands of the job and home. But at least the fact that I had a family to provide for motivated me — to work harder and better than I would have otherwise. If I had to do it while being aware of the fact that I was possibly throwing away my chance for a decent relationship and children, because of the physical effects of age? I can't even imagine it.
None of the above means that Biglaw should or will change to accommodate the disparate "timelines" men and women entering its maw have to deal with. Both male and female lawyers considering or working in Biglaw face numerous personal challenges. It is important to be realistic about them, and their cost. For female Biglaw lawyers, it is important to remember that Biglaw does not care about your biological clock — nor should it. That's your job. Good luck.
In the next installment, I will consider how the increasing numbers of women in-house counsel are starting to affect Biglaw partners like myself from a business development perspective. Down the road, I want to discuss how women can flourish in Biglaw, despite the challenges imposed by the "timelines" discussed above. Let me know any ideas, experiences, or thoughts you may have on this issue, by email or in the comments below…
Anonymous Partner is a partner at a major law firm. You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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