Women are still second-class citizens in the legal profession. What can be done about it?

Dale Cendali ’84 graduated from Harvard Law School expecting that she and her female classmates would practice law for decades and be as successful as their male counterparts.

Today, she looks back on that optimism as naive.

True, Cendali is at the top of her field as an intellectual property litigator at O’Melveny & Myers, where she has been a partner since 1995.

But, in the years since law school, she’s seen the percentage of women partners stall, and she’s watched as most of her closest female law school friends dropped out of legal practice altogether for a variety of reasons.

“So many of the women lawyers I meet feel thwarted and not successful in their careers,” says Cendali. “The situation has not changed as much as we thought it would, and I find that very troubling.”

It’s been more than a decade since women began to constitute half of most law school graduating classes, yet they are far from reaching equality at the top of the profession.

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Women still account for only 17 percent of law firm partners, 20 percent of federal judges and 14 percent of Fortune 500 general counsels. And, at the current rate, the number of women partners won’t reach parity with the number of male partners until 2088.

“Twenty years ago people looked ahead and thought the problem would be solved by now, and that clearly hasn’t happened,” says Dean Elena Kagan ’86. “The progress that’s been made in terms of women’s participation at the highest levels of the legal profession has been much slower than anyone thought.”

Harvard Law School is in the early planning stages for Celebration 55: The Women’s Leadership Summit, which is expected to focus on topics including women’s lifelong career paths, mentorship and work-life balance. This event, scheduled for Sept. 19 to 21, 2008, will mark the 55th year since the first woman graduated from HLS. It follows Celebration 50, one of the best-attended alumni events in the school’s history. The goal, says Kagan, will be “to come up with concrete steps aimed at making a difference.”

The causes of women’s higher attrition and slower promotion are certainly no longer a mystery. The American Bar Association, local bar associations and consulting firms have churned out enough studies on the issue to fill a bookshelf.

At the top of any list are law firms’ ever escalating billable hour requirements and the sense that part-time work—if it’s even available—is detrimental to lawyers’ careers.

“The pressure is from an economic structure that relies on billable hours, client pressures and a culture that prizes being available without limit,” says Mona Harrington ’60, who studies work-life issues at MIT.

Women lawyers are four times likelier than men to take leaves of absence during their careers, according to a study by the research organization Catalyst, though observers point out that work-life balance is increasingly important to younger men and women alike.

“Legal employers should listen closely to what women have to say, because women are voicing the concerns of a growing number of men,” the Catalyst study says.

But ascribing women’s problems in the legal profession simply to their desire to have more time for family tells only part of the story, experts say.

Law firms may pride themselves on being meritocracies, but studies show that most partnerships are self-replicating cultures in which those most often deemed to have what it takes to be partner look just like those already at the top: white and male.

Relatedly, women lawyers often find it far harder to develop mentors, tap into informal networks within law firms, build business development skills and promote themselves. A recent ABA study suggests that these difficulties are magnified for minority women. The study found that 81 percent of female associates of color left their jobs within five years of being hired by large firms.

The “After the JD” study, which is tracking 4,000 graduates from schools (including Harvard Law School) during their first 10 years of practice, found that men are more likely to join partners for breakfast or lunch, to write for publications and to join law firm governance committees.

“In talking to women at bar events at different stages of their careers, I often hear the comment that there is something about the culture of firms that has made it difficult for women to succeed with the same numbers and the same quality of experience,” Cendali says. “What I keep hearing is that women are just not thought of to the same degree, promoted to the same degree, given the pitches, given the same opportunities men are. You have to make it yourself.”

Concerns about attrition and promotion are not unique to women lawyers in firms. Those who go in-house often discover similar issues, finding that the quality of life doesn’t match their expectations.

“Anyone who believes it’s Shangri-la should come work for me,” says Lena Goldberg ’78, executive vice president and general counsel at Fidelity, where she oversees a staff of 130 attorneys.

But while the hours aren’t necessarily shorter in-house, they can be more regular, Goldberg points out. And, she notes, she has more female company at the top of corporate legal departments: The percentage of women who are general counsels at Fortune 500 companies has doubled this decade.

In government and the nonprofit sector, women have fared better than in private practice, says Avis Buchanan ’81, director of the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia. “There are more women in higher-profile, higher-powered, higher-status jobs in the nonprofit world. There’s more of an effort, more of an egalitarian spirit and more of a sensitivity to issues of diversity,” she says. One reason for that success may be that publicly spirited jobs have a stronger appeal to women. The percentage of women who said that “helping others” was one of the most important factors to consider in picking a career was double that of men, according to a 2004 study by some Harvard Law students.

Within the for-profit world, law firms are lagging behind other professions, such as accounting, notes Joan Williams ’80, a professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law. She has studied the issue as co-director of the college’s Project for Attorney Retention.

The main difference, says Williams, is that accounting firms have calculated the high cost of attrition. Law firms, by contrast, which focus on cash flows, haven’t felt the same economic necessity while their profits have risen.

“Attrition is expensive, but generally law firms do not measure it,” says Lauren Stiller Rikleen, a Massachusetts attorney and author of the book “Ending the Gauntlet: Removing Barriers to Women’s Success in the Law.” “Attrition has always been treated as an accepted part of law practice.”

Catalyst makes the case that it’s in firms’ best interests to stem the flow of departing women attorneys. “An effective retention strategy can reduce the cost of human capital and increase revenue for the firm,” its study says.

So far, pressure from clients—rather than the bottom line—has proven to be a more effective motivator for law firms, says Meredith Moore, director of the office for diversity at the Association of the Bar of the City of New York.

“Companies are very vocal, not just about seeing diversity efforts within law firms that are their relationship partners, but looking at the hours being billed by race and gender,” she says. “More and more they’re not just saying diversity is important, but [are] really making decisions about their legal service providers based on diversity.”

Whatever the motivation, some law firms have made major efforts to change their cultures and to retain and promote women. “At my own firm we have launched a diversity initiative, and my impression is that various other firms are attempting similar programs,” says O’Melveny & Myers partner Cendali.

D.C.-based Dickstein Shapiro has instituted a part-time work schedule that attracts about 20 associates and five to six partners per year. Gabrielle Roth, who began working part time as an associate and still does as a partner, helps make sure part-time lawyers don’t feel pressured to work more hours than intended, and that they are compensated extra when they do.

Reed Smith, a firm based in Pittsburgh with offices worldwide, organizes networking events exclusively for women attorneys and their clients. At one recent event, a Pittsburgh Panthers women’s basketball game, women attorneys brought their children.

Arnold & Porter, based in Washington, D.C., was the first law firm in the country to provide on-site child care, and there are women in key leadership positions atop the firm.

But some observers say such efforts remain the exception. “The types of major changes that are needed are still lagging,” says Rikleen. “It’s hard and it takes time and you need people who take the time and invest what’s needed.”

Williams, the Hastings law professor, says law schools, too, have a role to play by arming students with better information and helping women alumni return to the workforce.

Law school career service offices, she says, could help students “figure out for themselves what’s window dressing and what’s real” about law firms’ part-time policies by posting statistics on their Web sites on the number of partners and men working part time and the percentage making partner.

“To send your law students out into the world without that information is setting them up for disappointment and setting up a lot of women for dropping out of the law,” Williams says.

Kagan recently made clear that she, too, believes law schools should be doing more. “This is an area in which law schools and practitioners must make common cause,” she said in a speech to the Association of the Bar of the City of New York last fall. “This is not just your problem; it is our problem, too, and all of us need to look for common solutions.”

In particular, Kagan suggested that law schools could do more to help women to return to the workforce. “Harvard Law School is exploring ways to expand alumni advising, moving toward the concept of lifelong career services,” she says. She also stresses the importance of building networks linking women practitioners and students.

Some of that is already happening through alumni associations. Recently, for example, the Harvard Law School Women’s Network and the HLSA of Northern California sponsored a presentation at Heller Ehrman in San Francisco titled “Opting Back In and Forging Ahead: Helping Women Return to the Law.” Experts, including Williams, shared advice for mothers seeking to return to practice after time off to care for children, and gave tips to help women law firm partners develop better leadership skills. Williams is planning a program to counsel women partners on becoming equity partners.

Helping women re-enter the workforce is also the goal of the Back to Business Law project started in April 2006 by the American Bar Association. Each month, a group of women gather at a New York City law firm for lectures on topics that will help them keep up with developments in the law. At one recent event, E. Norman Veasey, a former chief justice of the Delaware Supreme Court, lectured on corporate governance. Attendance earns them continuing legal education credit.

“The people who attend can hear about recent developments in business law and feel more up to snuff with their skills,” says Kayalyn A. Marafioti, a Skadden Arps partner who helps to organize the sessions. “It doesn’t seem foreign and alien to them.”

In the end, problems faced by women in the legal profession will have to be solved by employers, Kagan believes. “But many employers desperately want to solve them and are looking for any help that anyone can offer,” she says, “so I think there are opportunities for cooperation and collaboration here.”