The New Women In Black: Firms, Frames, Families and Futures in the Legal Profession in India

By Swethaa Ballakrishnen

Editors’ Note: This article is based upon preliminary findings of the author’s doctoral research that examines comparative advantages within the Indian legal profession for female lawyers. A more detailed analysis of this data is available from the Harvard GLEE project and a longer version of this article is forthcoming in the Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies (2013). The author’s current projects on the legal profession include an attrition study on lawyers from large law firms, a law school survey to understand supply side dynamics better, and a study on prestige within legal process outsourcing firms (forthcoming in the International Journal of the Legal Profession).

In 2012, one of India’s most prestigious law firms promoted 13 senior associates to become partners. Seventy percent of them were women. The promotions were reported widely in the news media. Yet, most Mumbai women corporate lawyers are unlikely to find the number of women promoted here to be particularly surprising. Having followed a pattern of gender-blind admission to law school and recruitment by firms, many women find themselves in microcosms where their gender is not often considered of primary importance – at least not on the face of it. As a result, in elite corporate legal circles, being a successful female lawyer is no longer an aberration. Despite the severely male-gendered environment of the profession as a whole, top law firms in the country have managed to afford their associates gender-neutral environments where women are not only represented, but represented on par with their male counterparts in positions of power.

In general, this sort of success for women in established prestigious positions within any profession is noteworthy. It is especially significant when considered against the backdrop of the legal profession, where, globally, women have had to confront deeply hierarchical obstacles to entry and advancement. It is of even greater significance in India, a country that has one of the world’s least egalitarian legal workforces. For instance, as of 2010, less than 10 percent of the enrolled advocates in the Indian bar were women (http://120.138.244.28/advocates/num-advocates.php). As a point of comparison, there are fewer female advocates in the entire country than male advocates in the State of Uttar Pradesh, alone. This dissonance is pertinent from an organizational standpoint because the Indian legal profession is hardly the perfect environment for the emergence of a gender-egalitarian workspace.

My research investigates the dynamics of this finding, which is at odds with what we would intuitively expect. Essentially, I ask: what about these new law firms and the women who inhabit them can help us understand this recent—and seemingly anomalous– development? How do some women manage to come out ahead in a larger professional environment that is otherwise circumscribed by gender? I broadly suggest that the answer lies in evaluating a range of potential factors that I tag as Firms, Frames, Families and Futures.

Firms

While individual characteristics (such as education and family background) and interactional dynamics (the kinds of peers and mentors they have, the client relationships they are capable of forging) are central to understanding women in senior positions in large Indian law firms, the value of these characteristics works best in a supportive institutional context.

Litigation remains a stubbornly resistant male-dominated bastion. Thus, a common theme in my interviews with senior female firm lawyers was their having the opportunity to distance themselves from a traditional career in the hierarchical world of litigation. By not replicating the male-dominated hierarchical world of litigation in corporate practice, elite corporate law firms are offering a welcome and unique organizational alternative for the highly-educated female lawyer who wants to pursue a non-litigation legal career. When asked whether she felt as if she were part of a “diverse” class seeking inclusion in the profession, one senior lawyer offered: “Within the firm? Of course, not. Within the profession? (pause) I don’t think anymore. Maybe in litigation—but not in these types of corporate law firms.”

The perception of this senior lawyer that even within the profession as a whole she was just another lawyer, not a member of a “diverse” class, contrasts dramatically with the reality of a low female presence in the vast remainder of the profession. The perception reveals the power of new organizations (here, large law firms) to set prevailing norms and assumptions (gender-egalitarian professional spaces). It suggests one reason why women might be committed to doing well within these firms: there are few other places where their commitment is likely to pay off as well.

Frames

Law firms have distinguished themselves in the Indian legal profession by structuring themselves differently from traditional legal practices. But being a new kind of organization alone is usually not enough to dismantle persistent hierarchies. We know that in any organizational emergence story, building truly innovative workspaces is difficult because old frameworks of operation and management always attach themselves to new forms. In this case, conventional logic would assume that even new kinds of organizations would typically follow in adopting the hierarchies that reflect the environments they are embedded in. In other words, these large law firms, even as recent additions to the Indian legal landscape, should have been as deeply male-gendered as the professional framework from which they sprouted. So the question arises: how have these law firms managed to liberate themselves from the crutches of the larger, male gender-bound, profession?

A line of research by social psychologist Cecilia Ridgeway offers one explanation. Ridgeway, who studies women in technology firms, finds that, overall, women do better in start-ups (which are seen as a new, innovative types of workplaces) than in traditional workspaces that reiterate hierarchies. However, even in start-ups, women in the field of engineering have only limited advantages because, overall, the engineering field is strongly male-gendered, and gender hierarchies attach themselves to any new organizations that arise, no matter how innovative they may be. On the other hand, women in biotech startups enjoy superior advantages because the novel organizational start-up structure is embedded within a field (life sciences) that does not have a strong gender identity.

Accordingly, one explanation for the advantages inherited by women in these relatively new workplaces might be that these institutions are so new that there is no expectation or popular conception that the work being done there is “a man’s job.” These firms do new kinds of work (mostly transactional), for new clients (India’s active international transaction scene has followed the opening of markets in 1991) within organizations that have never been structured quite like this before. Unlike with male-centric assumptions that stifle litigating careers by women, large law firms in India are truly free to reorganize themselves in ways that creatively attack traditional hierarchies.

Families

The new trend in gender-equality in law firms also gets its impetus from women themselves. A majority of women – and associates in general – who work for these firms are graduates of the country’s premiere National Law Schools, that select incoming students using highly-competitive entrance examinations, and graduate as many women as they do men from their rigorous undergraduate curricula. These graduates do not make a dent in the disparate gender ratios in the larger profession, but within these elite cliques women garner egalitarian treatment on merit alone.

The typical law school student from a national law school—and, by extension, the typical associate on the fast-track to partnership at one of these firms—is an English-speaking, private school-educated woman from an urban, educated family who finished law school at 21. She is likely to have made independent choices not just about where she would want to work, but also where she wants to live and who she would like to partner with or marry. As a result, her sense of agency when negotiating her professional interactions is not learned behavior, but comes naturally. Furthermore, because the typical law student starts at one of these firms in her early twenties, she enjoys a unique life-choice advantage that her global peers do not: she can be a partner by the time she is 30. Unlike an American associate who typically starts her first law firm job at 25 and cannot envisage a partnership position until later in her 30s, the Indian law firm trajectory—at least for now— places many women in positions of power without having to sacrifice choices regarding childbirth and family (or in many cases, choose to not do either).

If this does not paint a picture of the average Indian working professional, it is because it is not intended to. But while there is no doubt that these firms are championing an independent and evolved modern Indian woman with certain class and familial advantages, it remains that these women have not had other avenues by which to exercise these advantages in the past.

Futures

Much of the data I base these observations on are theoretical extensions of pilot interviews with senior female lawyers at large law firms in the country. While data suggesting the ability to negotiate gender hierarchies within these firms is no doubt promising for both women and emerging organizations alike, these findings are limited by important caveats. For one, there is no direct comparative case here, either at the individual level (i.e. male lawyers) or the organizational level (i.e. women in litigation or in companies), because these in-depth interviews were conducted only with senior women at law firms.

Secondly, these firms are mostly in Mumbai, India’s financial capital and a city whose “big firm” culture is more distinctly shaped by globalization than, for instance, Delhi, where large law firms are organized differently. Women I spoke with in Mumbai would often reference how “this would have been different in Delhi” while explaining their particular advantage in their large law firm. Or they might mention “friends from law school” who, in their words, “had it very different” in a similarly placed law firm in another city.

Third, limiting observations to people in these firms leaves an important section of the population outside of their purview: women who leave these firms. To truly understand the experience of these organizational forms and the barriers to success within them, understanding why women leave these firms is as crucial as understanding how they succeed within them.

Fourth, the entire advantage crafted by these experiences may be a function of age. And the reasons I suggest for thisas advantages – the institutional novelty of these firms, the ability of these women to balance their work and family – might be short lived advantages. It is no doubt true that these women flourish because the challenges of motherhood and young children – traditional laxatives causeslaxativesdrivers of attrition – are not yet fully matured in their individual cases. But as these firms grow in size and respond to larger market requirements, more women in later stages of their lives and careers will have to make choices about balancing work and family. At this stage, it seems possible to be optimistic that gender will not be salient, but contrasting it with other evidence from the field leaves at least some room for doubt. For instance, the Rainmaker report, which focused on a more senior demographic of women (the sample had an average age of 34 and over a third had more than ten years in practice) seemed to give the impression that most women lawyers did think that motherhood was a strong barrier to career advancement.

Finally, it could be that, given how few advantages there are for advancement within the profession, women who do succeed tend to self-report even greater advantages than they actually receive. While there is no reason to believe that these women are misstating their experiences, it is possible that there is some dissonance between their experiences and the exact career advantages rendered them. Of course, without systematic data on promotions and rewards, making absolute comparisons is difficult. But reports from the field seem to suggest a similar dissonance: over half the sample (n=150) of female lawyers in the Rainmaker Survey released in 2012 reported to having an equal work-life balance while another 42% felt that while they spent more time at work, they had some balance between work and life. Yet, at the same time, 90% of them thought that the lack of flexible hours, and home-related barriers like pressures to start a family (77%) and the lack of day care (85%) were the biggest obstacles at work. Thus, women were quick to confirm advantages in general but had to be pushed to tease out specific barriers they had to overcome to access these advantages.

The explication of these limitations does not diminish the fact that this is an important time in the history of the Indian legal profession. The women who are unlocking unprecedented success within environments that do not rely on their gender are a unique case not only in the context of the gender-hostile Indian legal world, but in the history of the legal profession more globally. Now that some sources of these advantages have been located, more research is required to truly unpack the mechanisms that can explain these optimistic aberrations. It is only then that we can begin to make a meaningful inquiry into the emergence and sustainability of the non-gender-salient professional workplaces.

Swethaa Ballakrishnen is a doctorate candidate at the Sociology Department at Stanford University and an affiliate research fellow at the Program of the Legal Profession in Harvard Law School. Her research broadly investigates organizational innovation, stratification and global influence in emerging markets. She can be contacted at swethaa@stanford.edu.

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