The Careerist blog currently features a photo of a woman in a cage to illustrate a post about why women don’t advance to ownership status in law firms.  

While I agree that women do not make up a fair percentage of the equity partner ranks, I disagree that flex time and diversity initiatives and increased mentoring are going to fix the problem.  The problem lies with the way firms are structured and with the way they make money.  It isn’t feasible economically to move women up if they aren’t billing what their male counterparts are.  This means that the solution is one of two things: either women, in large enough numbers, will make the sacrifices necessary to bill a lot, to form client relationships, and to ascend; or firms will find a way to profitably advance the interests of female associates.  The second option will require significant changes in law firm culture and business structure.  The fact that clients may insist that matters be diversely staffed is meaningless; businesses of all kinds have employed tokens for decades to head off gender and race issues. 

Internal change will occur when the billable hour makes way for alternative billing arrangements based on delivery of value, but that change will not be initially positive for women.  Firms will probably slough off associates by the hundreds, and that will affect women (and probably racial minorities) disproportionately.  There will probably be a few more Howreys.  Firms will need to become leaner and smaller, and the process will be painful.  I believe that the greatest hope for female advancement lies with the trend towards smaller, boutique firms, many of which will be founded by former BigLaw partners in the coming years.  These boutiques will feel downward pressure from clients to hire women, and it is much more difficult for smaller firms to “up and out” associates.  The cost of attrition is too high.  Women who perform well in those environments should expect to advance to ownership in good numbers. 

All of this assumes a smaller associate workforce, though, as orphans from the prior few years transition out of law entirely and as law school class sizes shrink.  The current associate workforce is not sustainable under an alternative fee system.  If class sizes remain stagnant – which they could, since student loans are non-dischargeable in bankruptcy, so lenders and schools have no real incentive to cut back – we stand to see a glut of youngish lawyers on the market competing for limited job opportunities.  That picture is not appealing from a diversity perspective.  Or any perspective, really. 

I think the legal industry is poised on the edge of a precipice.  The question is how Icarus-like we choose to be going forward.  Law schools must make employment statistics more transparent.  Applicants have a right to know that ten percent of a school’s “employed” grads are actually working as legal secretaries or worse.  Some sort of initiative must be taken to address the problem of outstanding student loans.  Unlike mortgages, student loans are not dischargeable; law graduates who might otherwise move to a more efficient employment market are unable to do so because of pressure to meet their loan payments.  The need to hire the best and brightest graduates, in turn, places pressure on firms to increase their hourly rates.  The whole system is fractured at its core.   And the one entity that could take a fairly effective crack at fixing it is in serious denial about the whole thing. 

If you agree, don’t pay your dues next year.  I don’t think I will be.