Generational Perspectives on the State of Women in Law
Inspired by the many speakers WLALA has presented over the years, we’ve taken notice that we can all benefit by sharing our experiences, wisdom, ideas and hopes for the future. For the younger generation, it is easy to forget how far we’ve come and the paths those before us have paved. For the older generation, the focus on work-life balance and the drop-out rate among younger attorneys may seem disappointing. In this “Generational Perspectives” series, WLALA will feature articles written by female attorneys of all ages – from those who have been practicing for more than 35 years to those who recently graduated from law school -- to share their thoughts on how far we’ve come and where we are headed.
by Anne Grignon and Margaret Grignon
Anne Grignon and Margaret Grignon (mother and daughter) are attorneys with Reed Smith’s Appellate Group. Margaret has been practicing law for 35 years, including a storied career on the municipal, superior and Court of Appeal benches, writing more than 2,000 opinions. She now works on the other side of the bench, representing clients in many different industries in their appellate claims. Anne began her career as an honors research attorney in the downtown Los Angeles Superior Court. She then spent seven years as an associate in an admiralty firm in Long Beach, where she had a significant motion and appellate practice before transitioning to the Reed Smith Appellate Group a year and a half ago. She now balances trial and dispositive motion consultations with drafting appellate briefs and writ petitions. Their views on women in the law have been forged by their generational perspectives.
1. What was your perspective on women in the law when you started your career?
Anne: My initial perspective in law school at Boston College was that the opportunities for women were limitless. I grew up with my mother as Exhibit A for equality in the profession. Nearly half of the students and law school professors were women, and selection to law journals was based upon merit. Though there were the occasional instances of males boasting that they would best their female colleagues in situations such as mock mediations, their subsequent defeats at the hands of these “push overs” brought a quick halt to this behavior. Following law school, I worked as a research attorney for two Los Angeles Superior Court judges in downtown Los Angeles, the highest volume court in the country. During my time at the court, I realized that the vast majority of lawyers making case appearances or arguing dispositive motions, were male. On the other hand, the number of female judges was high, showing that progress had been made. The field in which I practiced for seven years—admiralty/shipping—had a low percentage of women practicing in it. I began to realize that many legal fields were underrepresented by women, and that gender differences continued to exist. I did not face any of the outright discrimination more common when women lawyers first began appearing on the legal scene, though I have been called “sweetie” or “dear” by opposing male counsel.
Margaret: When I attended law school in the mid-1970s, women were just beginning to enroll in law schools in large numbers—my law school class was one-third women. At that time, however, the recent law school percentages were not reflected in the legal practice. When I joined a major law firm as an associate, I believe there was a single woman partner. I recall my soon-to-be practice group leader telling me that the group (which was all male) had once included a woman, “but she had not worked out.” I also recall that same partner inviting me to lunch at a private club to persuade me to join the group. We were required to take a back elevator and dine in a separate pink dining room. For their part, women attorneys attempted to conform to male stereotypes as much as possible: we played fantasy football, we wore only navy blue, brown, black and grey suits, we took short maternity leaves, and we rarely discussed our children with our colleagues. At home, frequently our work was viewed as less important than our husband’s and many of our friends and relatives wondered aloud whether we were adequately performing our duties as wives and mothers. Despite these barriers of perception and attitude, excellent work was recognized and opportunities for success were open regardless of gender. I had many wonderful male mentors who helped me develop my legal skills and promoted my capabilities. But the numbers of women in prominent positions in the legal field grew very slowly. In the mid-1980s when I was appointed to the municipal court bench, I was the only woman judicial officer in my court and all of the deputy district attorneys and public defenders were men. A few women practiced law in the community--primarily in the area of family law. The absence of other women in my environment made me realize just how important it is for the community in general, and women and girls in particular, to have women role models so that they can begin to see women in these important societal roles.
2. How do you perceive the position of women in the law now?
Anne: In the nearly 10 years since I have graduated from law school, my perspective on opportunities in the legal field has become somewhat less rosy. The best part about being a woman lawyer today is the increased flexibility for career paths. I transitioned from a small firm to a large law firm, where over half of the associates are women. I also know many women lawyers my age who have gone from law firm jobs to government positions, in-house counsel positions, or started their own firms. However, challenges for women remain. When other attorneys learn that I am working in the Appellate Group with my mother, they usually react with surprise at a minimum, and sometimes outright disapproval. Yet, nearly everyone knows at least one father-son lawyer duo practicing together. And there can be no greater role model to work with—my mother works harder than anyone else I know, never gives up on hard issues, drafts extremely persuasive briefs, and is always respectful of other lawyers’ schedules. Another area of difficulty for women in all law firms is promotion to partnership and firm management. Women must learn to steer past various pitfalls on the path to law firm success, such as a natural inclination not to self-promote or an unwillingness to request credit for helping to bring in new clients, the inability to play golf (though I am trying to learn!) and the lack of access to clients and the pitch process.
Margaret: I have been a practicing lawyer and judge for 35 years and the mother of two children for most of that time. Over the years, of course, much has changed for both me and women in the legal profession. Personally, I have progressed from a law clerk for an appellate judge, to an associate in two major law firms, to a trial and appellate judge, to a partner in an international law firm. For me, it has been a great and fulfilling career. Women also have made great strides. They are no longer merely tolerated or accepted—provided they conform to male attorney stereotypes—but gender diversity is highly sought after and valued. In that regard, women attorneys today are actively recruited, law firm programs abound to assist young women attorneys to become successful, maternity leaves are longer, part time schedules are permitted, and we can wear whatever color of clothes we want. More importantly, the perspective that women bring to the practice of law—including attention to work-life balance—has begun to permeate the work place to the benefit of men and women alike. It is now “okay” to attend your children’s school functions, coach soccer or Little League, act as a scout leader, and deal openly with emergency child care issues. This is not to say that the path is easy. The legal profession has always been very demanding and seems to be ever more so in today’s fast-paced and always-connected world. The hours necessary to perform your work are many and cannot be neatly cabined into set days and hours. Difficult choices still need to be made. Is there time to attend bar meetings, to write an article, to make a speech, to participate in your child’s school field trip, to go on a date with your significant other, to take a family vacation or even to exercise, sleep or read a book. And, there are still many occasions when it seems as if you can perform neither your work nor your home duties well. Moreover, young women are led to believe that “they can have it all” and if they are having any difficulty, it must be their fault. This is a pernicious fallacy that undermines the confidence of many young women. Nevertheless, and despite the challenges, I believe the law is a challenging and fulfilling profession for women and one that is flexible enough to allow many different paths to happiness and success.
3. How can women help each other to succeed in the legal field?
Anne: The promotion of more women in the legal field helps all women to progress. I make it a practice to mentor young women associates who are just beginning in their careers. Not only do I provide advice to such women, I suggest them for staffing on cases, urge them to write and find legal article topics for them, and maintain an open door policy at all times. Everyone received assistance from a mentor somewhere along the way in their career, and it is vital to reciprocate.
Margaret: We are all very busy, but it is important to take the time to promote talented women in the judiciary and legal profession. All of us can do this in a variety of ways. We can recommend women when we are asked for referrals, hire women for our firms, assign women associates to our litigation teams, and promote women lawyers to partnership and leadership positions. We can also help in smaller but important ways. Make sure the firm’s management is aware of the good work a woman attorney has done, take your women colleagues on pitches, bring them along to bar meetings and functions, write notes of encouragement or congratulations, and be there when they need help. Individually we are impressive. Together we can be formidable.
Anne Grignon is the chair of the WLALA Amicus Briefs Committee. Both Anne and Margaret are attorneys with Reed Smith's Appellate Group.
*If you would like to contribute to this series, please contact the WLALA Communications Officer, Amy Brantly at email@example.com.