Photo by Kevin Wolf/Invision for Seneca Women/AP Images
Photo by Kevin Wolf/Invision for Seneca Women/AP Images

For Women in Law, Flexibility Can Help Break Barriers

Editor’s Note: This post was written by the co-founder of Seneca Women, an organization dedicated to the advancement of women and girls. 

By Kim Azzarelli, Co-Founder, Seneca Women

Last month, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined us and judges from 15 countries in paying tribute to Sandra Day O’Connor, the first female justice to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States.

During her 15-minute tribute to O’Connor, Justice Ginsburg recounted stories about their friendship, including how O’Connor had guided Ginsburg through the tricky inner workings of the Court, and encouraged her to persevere during difficult times and pave the way for more women in the justice system.

“In her [Sandra Day O’Connor’s] own words,” said Ginsburg, “for men and women, the first step in getting power is to become visible to others, and then to put on an impressive show. As women achieve power, the barriers will fall. As society sees what women can do, as women see what women can do, there will be more women out there doing things and we’ll all be better off for it.’”

The importance of women’s participation in the law can be traced back at least as far as 1848 when women and men convened at Seneca Falls to demand equal participation under the law, beginning what would be an over 70 year campaign for women’s suffrage. Since then, women have earned positions of power in nearly every sector of society. In the U.S., there has been some progress in women obtaining leadership positions in the field of law with women holding nearly 25% of federal judicial posts [1] and 21% of general counsel positions in Fortune 500 companies.  [2]

Women’s participation in the law can be traced back at least as far as 1848

Women, however, accounted for only 17 percent of equity partners in the 200 largest law firms in 2013, according to the National Association of Women Lawyers,[3] despite graduating from law school in roughly equal numbers as men over the previous decade, according to the American Bar Association[4] A 2007 report by the M.I.T. Workplace Center found that the main reason women gave for going off the partnership track was “the difficulty of combining law firm work and caring for children in a system that requires long hours under high pressure with little or inconsistent support for flexible work arrangements.” [5]

What is holding us back? In part this can be attributed to systemic design flaws. We live and work in institutions and systems designed to reflect a bygone era—one that assumes that all families have one stay-at-home parent. Today, however, roughly 60 percent of married-couple households have two parents in the workforce, [6] and nearly one-third are headed by a single parent, mostly women. [7] Care responsibilities can weigh on women’s careers. According to one survey, working mothers are much more likely than working fathers to have taken “a significant amount of time off from work to care for a child or family member.” [8]  This additional burden can penalize women at work, where they are sometimes perceived as less committed to the job.

Thankfully individuals and organizations both large and small are coming up with flexible arrangements. Some women are forming small firms, like the Geller Law Group, where the founding credo is family-friendly and anti-office face time, allowing women to fully contribute professionally and be fully present in their children’s lives.

We live and work in institutions and systems designed to reflect a bygone era.

Big law firms like Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe are also working to come up with ways to invest in working mothers. Orrick recently announced a new parental leave program that will offer its U.S. lawyers paid primary caregiver leave of 22 weeks, with the options of taking a total of up to nine months before returning to work.

Orrick’s new policy, which makes it an industry-leader, makes manifest that it recognizes the value of women in its workforce and the importance of caregiving. In the greater scheme of things, 22 weeks of leave is a short-term sacrifice for a firm or company if it retains qualified, motivated employees. After all, a recent analysis by KPMG and Vodafone shows that 16 minimum weeks of maternity leave would cost global businesses an additional $28 billion per year, yet recruiting and training employees to replace women leaving the workforce after having a baby would cost up to $47 billion annually.[9]

In the greater scheme of things, 22 weeks of leave is a short-term sacrifice

This is not just a women’s issue, though. All employees, and society at large, stand to benefit from work environments in which caretaking and professional performance are not mutually exclusive. We, in the legal profession, have the ability and the obligation to continue the mission of the women and men who have fought for equality since Seneca Falls and to help lift the barriers to women’s economic and legal participation. Let’s redesign our workplaces to reflect the realities of today’s families. Businesses, communities and countries will all benefit from the talent of half the population.

Pictured Above: Supreme Court Justices Elena Kagan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sandra Day O’Connor and Sonia Sotomayor seen at the Seneca Women Global Leadership Forum at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, on Wednesday, April 15, 2015 in Washington.


[1] Calculated from numbers of sitting female and male judges on district and circuit courts. At time of publication, there were 340 female judges and 1011 male judges. Biographical Directory of Federal Judges, Federal Judicial Center, accessed March 27, 2015,

[2] (original article can be accessed via LexisNexis here:

[3] Report of the Eighth Annual NAWL National Survey on Retention and Promotion of Women in Law Firms,, page 7


[5], page 4, 12


[7] Calculated from number of families maintained by mother divided by number of total families maintained by single parent (mother or father)



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