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Women Lawyers Still Face Bias, Survey Finds : Poll: Respondents report sexual harassment, failure to accommodate family needs. But some law firms question the study's reliability.

October 13, 1995|MAURA DOLAN | TIMES LEGAL AFFAIRS WRITER

Many women lawyers complain that they face strong obstacles in the legal profession, including sexual harassment and a failure by firms to accommodate child-rearing needs, according to a survey of more than 500 female attorneys at 57 of the nation's largest law firms.

The survey by the Harvard Women's Law Assn. ranked 57 firms based on responses to two-page questionnaires. The authors said the rankings were based on evidence that was largely personal and anecdotal, reflective of the more than 500 women who make up the 15% who responded. Seven California law firms participated.

Some of the firms were outraged by their negative ratings because the report is intended as a guide for female law graduates faced with a variety of job prospects. In many cases, only a handful of women at the firms surveyed returned questionnaires, and their anonymous comments were often blistering.

"Sexual harassment of female staff and female summer associates is de rigueur, " said an associate at the New York law firm of Sullivan & Cromwell. A representative for the firm was unavailable for comment.

The legal profession is still smarting from the $3.8-million jury verdict in a sexual harassment case against the San Francisco law firm Baker & McKenzie and former partner Martin Greenstein. The suit was brought by Greenstein's former secretary, who accused him of dropping M & Ms into her shirt pocket and grabbing her breasts.

Los Angeles' Latham & Watkins scored in the upper half of firms, ranking 21st out of 57. Three associates and two partners at the firm responded to the survey.

"L & W is ahead of the curve, in my perception, with respect to family leave, flexible schedules and general gender issues," one respondent said. Although the "enormous pressure to bill huge hours" makes balancing work with personal life difficult, wrote another, the firm is "very open to part-time schedules."

One associate said the firm's sensitivity to family was rising as women enter management ranks. "Some of the most powerful partners are women," a respondent said.

Los Angeles' O'Melveny & Myers received less favorable ratings, capturing a score of 34 based on responses by six women. Women lawyers at the firm generally said their advancement opportunities were equal to those of male lawyers but one respondent said women must "behave exactly like men" and a partner complained of a lack of mentors for women lawyers.

Three of the other California firms surveyed were ranked in the top 10 for responsiveness to issues that concern women. San Francisco's McCutchen, Doyle, Brown & Enerson, at the top of the list for California firms, ranked in fifth place.

"That doesn't surprise me," said McCutchen partner Charlene Shimade, the head of the firm's recruiting committee. "I think this is a firm that has a commitment to diversity, including creating opportunities for women and people of color."

The other two California firms ranked in the top 10 were San Francisco's Morrison & Foerster and Palo Alto's Wilson, Sonsini, Goodrich & Rosati. Heller Ehrman White & McAuliffe, also of San Francisco, was rated near the bottom in 54th place.

"Male partners seem to . . . be admired for setting aside time for their kids," an associate wrote anonymously, "while women who do so risk being viewed as insufficiently committed to work."

Peter Benvenutti, managing partner of the San Francisco office, said he was "befuddled" by the low rating "because to the best of my knowledge not only women associates but associates in general are pretty happy with the way the firm is run."

He questioned whether responses from a handful of women lawyers in the office reflected the feelings of the majority. Other firms rated negatively had similar concerns.

"Two comments can put you at the bottom," said Susan Gilbert, director of human resources for Chicago's Chapman & Cutler, which was rated the worst at 57.

Perhaps the most incensed was Jerome C. Katz, who called The Times from a business meeting in London to respond to the survey's ranking of his firm, New York's Chadbourne & Parke, in second to last place.

"We are incredibly flexible and liberal and imaginative about ad hoc arrangements to deal with family situations, both for women and men," he said. "These charges are just false and outrageous."

He noted that another report, called the Insider's Guide to Law Firms, had praised the firm for its policies on women's issues.

The editors of the survey, Harvard law students Suzanne Nossel and Lisa Westfall, acknowledged the criticism. "In most cases," said the report by the law students' group, "we have no way of knowing whether the sentiments conveyed by respondents from individual firms are reflective of the views of the entire populace of women employed at that firm."

But they also defended the results, noting that positive comments were offered as well as negative. "We initiated to help law students decide where to work after graduation, Nossel said. "But the response was so enormous and level of anger so compelling that we decided to share the results."

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