We all have heard the age-old adage of women entering the legal profession only to be treated differently – as less valuable, less appreciated, less respected – than their male counterparts. It is something we all experience externally to some degree, whether it be by opposing counsel, the bench, a mediator, even co-counsel. For those of us who are lucky, our experiences of being treated as such are few and far between. And it really does come down to luck, at least with respect to our external interactions.
That is not the case, however, for our internal experience.
What I mean by this phrase is where we choose to work, who we surround ourselves with, and how those people treat us. And where we choose to work is shaped in large part by the practice area we enter.
No matter what substantive area of law in which we choose to practice, there is no guarantee that women will be treated respectfully, valued equally to the men around them, or appreciated for the skills they bring to the table. With that said, indulge me as I make the pitch for why civil rights is one of the best professions for women to enter.
First and foremost, of all of the substantive areas of the profession, civil rights is the one tasked with ensuring equity and fairness. While that does not mean our firms are free of sex discrimination or sexual harassment, it does mean that you will almost certainly have allies if you come face to face with discrimination in your workplace. And that is even more true if you experience discrimination from external forces.
When women experience sex discrimination externally, the vocalized opposition from the civil rights community is immediate. My coworkers, including the named partners of my firm, have stood up for me time and time again in the face of discrimination. They have expressly called out sexist remarks lodged in my direction during depositions, in the courtroom, and even privately over the phone (trust me, sound carries). Last year when I openly opposed the CBA’s decision not to support the Equal Pay for Equal Work Act and was subsequently made the target of the CBA’s ire, my firm stood firmly beside me as I fought back. Refusing to support a cause championed by women and then trying to silence women who spoke out did not sit well with me, or them.
While I am sure there are women outside of the civil rights profession who have seen similar displays of support, I truly believe that the civil rights community is one you can nearly always rely on to do the right thing in the face of oppressive and discriminatory tactics. At least that is the community I have come to know and love in Colorado.
Another reason to consider the civil rights profession speaks to the opportunities you will be afforded in a short period of time. In the world of civil rights, there is almost an endless amount of work and very few hands to get it done. Unlike in BigLaw where you may spend your first couple of years primarily focused on doc review and outlining depositions for partners to conduct, within months of starting at a civil rights firm you will almost positively be briefing substantive motions, attending mediation, interviewing witnesses, managing the client, and even taking depositions. (One of my coworkers took two depositions within three of months of starting at our firm, and I took my first deposition three months in).
I still remember a close friend from law school excitedly telling me that she had been asked to conduct a handful of client interviews after just one year at her BigLaw job, a privilege bestowed on only the most trusted of associates. I was, of course, incredibly happy for her. Yet it was hard for me not to consider her success in conjunction with my own experiences. In less than five months at my firm, I had briefed more than a dozen substantive motions (all attributed to me as the primary signatory), engaged in numerous oral arguments, drafted jury instructions, and successfully tried a case with the two named partners.
Looking back over my time in the profession, I cannot imagine that I would have become a partner of a non-civil-rights firm after just five and a half years in practice. I cannot envision having been allowed to sign my name to briefs one month into my job, or that I would have been conducting oral argument on a matter of first impression just a couple of months later. In no other job would I have been encouraged to return a call from a partner at a BigLaw law firm and privately negotiate with him over a preliminary injunction just one year into practice. The list goes on and on.
For those women who are interested in being exposed to similar opportunities within a community that will swiftly come to your defense as you challenge the sexism that unfortunately continues to permeate our profession, I highly encourage you to seek a career in civil rights.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not an easy profession to enter. Especially if you are transitioning from a non-civil-rights field. But it is certainly not unheard of. If you are looking for resources on how to position yourself into a civil rights career, check out Spark Justice Careers, my new passion project available at www.sparkjusticecareers.com.
Laura Wolf is a partner at the firm Rathod Mohamedbhai LLC and also the founder of Spark Justice Careers, LLC. As a partner at Rathod Mohamedbhai, Laura's practice includes advocating on behalf of individuals suffering from abuses of their civil rights, including minors experiencing abuse in K12 schools, persons whose liberties are lost at the hands of the police and other government officials, and employees facing discrimination in the workplace. Spark Justice Careers ("SJC") is dedicated to helping attorneys and law students establish a career in the civil rights legal community. SJC provides free content as well as individualized coaching services to help you discover your passion and confidently channel it into the career of your choice. For more information, check out www.sparkjusticecareers.com.