Congratulations on your decision to go to law school. Your dad and I are very proud; we’ve always been proud of you. I’m writing not to say how excited I am about the opportunities open to you as a lawyer, but about how your new skills – and law license – can truly help others. And how, as a woman, you will face challenges that your father may comprehend intellectually, but which he can never truly understand.
You are living in a world very different from the one I entered as a new lawyer. And in some ways, it is a much better world; certainly with respect to the role of women in American society. Is there a glass ceiling? Perhaps. But women are now serious presidential candidates and we run industries: General Motors, Xerox, Pepsi and Duke Energy are all headed by women. Two of the most important tech companies that have revolutionized digital media have women occupying key high-level executive offices: Marissa Mayer as CEO of Yahoo, and Sheryl Sandberg as COO of Facebook. And three women sit on the United States Supreme Court.
When I graduated law school, Sandra Day O’Connor had not yet been appointed to the Supreme Court. Back then, the best job offer I had that really allowed me to start practicing law also required me to be the office manager. (And as you have heard so many times, I have been with that very same law firm for my entire career.) But that was progress compared to the previous generation of women. When Sandra Day O’Connor graduated from Stanford Law School in 1952 – where she was Editor-in-Chief of the Law Review, no less – she was only offered a job as a secretary. Instead she took a job working in the San Mateo County Attorney’s Office – for free.
You will have many more opportunities. True, there are still very few women in the top ranks of most of the large law firms. Though 50 percent of my law school class was women – as yours is – a much smaller percentage made it to the top ranks. The reason was simple, and it certainly wasn’t a difference in ability: women took time off to have and raise children. And in an environment where “success” was often only measured by how many hours you could bill, women were at a distinct disadvantage. I don’t see that changing any time soon. So if that is the area of the law that you choose, then the deck will be stacked against you.
Many other areas of the law, however, put greater value on criteria that are far more important: what is the quality (not quantity) of your legal work? How much of a difference are you making in your clients’ lives? In their families’ lives? To their business? To society? Choose an employer who values those things, and you will be far more satisfied in your career, and in your life.
Choose a life partner who values what you do: you will be able to work doubly hard on your career and family – with half the pain and sacrifice.
When I started out as an attorney, litigation was very much a “boys club.” There were long-established and “acceptable” norms, traditions, and behaviors – most of which I found completely alien. I was not going to be boisterous or in-your-face. That just wasn’t me. Finding the confidence to be myself wasn’t easy at first. Yet I stayed true to who I was, and gradually gained confidence.
The most important advice I can give you is to find purpose in the law; purpose that is bigger than yourself. It is a noble profession; or at least can be. And when you put others’ needs ahead of your own, it is also a truly satisfying profession, and one you can be proud of.
Judy Livingston is a senior partner at the law firm of Kramer, Dillof, Livingston & Moore, where she specializes in medical malpractice and personal injury cases. She has been cited by New York Magazine as one of “the 50 most influential women lawyers in America.”