New edition on careers of women attorneys profiles multiple challenges

“The law is a profession and it’s a noble profession. And women have a role there to play,” says attorney Phyllis Horn Epstein.

Ten years ago, attorney Phyllis Horn Epstein wrote the first edition of “Women-at-Law.” Now, the American Bar Association has released “Women-at-Law: Lessons Learned Along the Pathways to Success, Second Edition”, an update to the first book.

Despite the passage of time, so much has remained the same for women who face multiple challenges in the legal profession.

Epstein, who is a tax lawyer at Philadelphia’s Epstein, Shapiro & Epstein, interviewed more than 500 diverse women for the book.

The origins of her first book came from Epstein looking at the lives and careers of her classmates at Temple Law School. She interviewed her women classmates and now extends it into a national study where she “talks about the life of the average woman lawyer.”

“The issues have expanded,” Epstein said about the decade between the first and second books. There is a new generation of younger women practicing law.



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There is also the possibility of flextime, which was very new for law firms 10 years ago. “There are expectations these arrangements can be made,” Epstein said about the beliefs found among younger women attorneys. The younger generation says, “We’ll do this and we’ll do this on our own terms,” Epstein relays.

Moreover, many issues need to be addressed such as workplace and personal life balance, with such concerns as how does a woman attorney work at her legal job and take children to daycare.

One woman said it would be “great” if “we could have children when we retire,” Epstein recalled.

She adds that many women find they may trade off opportunity for advancement and opportunity for leadership at law firms with needs associated with personal lives.

“They won’t be in line for equity partnerships,” Epstein said about many women lawyers.

Only 17 percent of equity partners at the largest U.S. law firms are women, according to a report last year from the National Association of Women Lawyers. This comes despite the fact that since the middle of the 1980s, more than 40 percent of law school graduates have been women. Moreover, in the 100 largest U.S. law firms, minorities who are women represent 2 percent of equity partnerships compared to 6 percent for male minorities.

There is another reality for women trying to find flexibility in their schedules at law firms. Now, lawyers may be given “labels” as “contract lawyers,” “of counsel positions,” “junior associates,” “reduced hours” or “career associates,” Epstein said.

For women attorneys, this means there is a “whole class of non-equity partners,” she said. For the most part, women attorneys do “miss out,” she adds.

Even part-time jobs turn out not be part-time jobs, but often require a 40-hour work week, Epstein said.

“It’s really difficult to understand what the deal is in each firm,” she adds.

On the other hand, women attorneys who take jobs at corporations, smaller law firms, government offices, the judiciary or non-profits may find they have better flexibility, control and predictability over their lives than at large law firms, Epstein said. She profiles some of these careers options in the book.

Epstein further points out that women’s career path in the law is not always similar to climbing a ladder of success. “It’s much more horizontal,” Epstein explains. “It’s a continuum of experiences; you can have it all eventually.”

Another challenge for women attorneys relates to proving themselves.

“We have to demonstrate competence,” Epstein said about one key difference between female and male attorneys. “[Women need to] demonstrate they have a background that shows their experience.”

And what about the number of women who are making equity partners in big law firms?

“It’s a real small group,” Epstein confirmed.

Despite this reality, many women now in law school have visions of getting a job at a large firm and earning a top salary. “Some of them make it,” Epstein said. “Most of them don’t…. They should have sites on alternative law firms and careers.”

There are also options for women when promoting their legal careers and skills. When it comes to networking, women attorneys often say online marketing has been helpful, Epstein said. Potential clients will read profiles. “They may not know you,” she said. “Maybe they are attracted to your profile.”

That is an option to traditional networking, which is very time-consuming and “it can be very hard for women,” Epstein said.

Despite the challenges, women continue to believe in their roles in the legal profession.

“The law is a profession and it’s a noble profession. And women have a role there to play,” Epstein said.

Contributing Author

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Ed Silverstein

Ed Silverstein ( is a veteran freelance writer and and editor for magazines, websites and newspapers. He writes frequently for ALM Media's

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