A dozen years ago, The New York Times, interviewed 21 young women who had just joined the prestigious New York law firm of Debevoise & Plimpton as first-year associates. The story, Great Expectations, written by Emily Nussbaum, appeared in a year in which the number of women entering law school was expected to exceed men for the first time.
The Times asked the newly minted law school grads if they expected to make partner in greater number than the women who preceded them. At the time, the attrition rate for women in Big Law was shockingly high. The newspaper noted, for example, that of the batch of women that entered the same firm in 1981, only two remained. Of the class that entered in 1991, a full decade later, only three had survived.
Now, the Times returned to see what happened to those 21 women who joined Debevoise & Plimpton in the fall of 2001. The video and article examining the outcome appeared Nov. 11 and is a fascinating, albeit brief, portrait of women in law. “The underlying premise of ‘Great Expectations,’ writes Florence Martin-Kessler, a journalist and documentary filmmaker, “was concise and blunt: Men ruled the world. I tore out and saved the article.”
‘THEIR LIVES WERE OFTEN MORE COMPLEX THAN THEY PREDICTED’
In recent weeks, she pulled out the original article, read the original reflections on ambition and leadership, and began tracking down the lawyers in it. Martin-Kessler found that only a handful of them remained with the firm. Of the original 21, she discovered, about half are in private practice, some are in powerful positions at corporations, others are working in public interest law and several became full-time parents.
“What I found most interesting was that their lives were often more complex than they predicted,” wrote Martin-Kessler. “Even the greatest of expectations, it seems eventually counter reality.”
The accompanying video, with before and current portraits of the women, has several of them reading what they had said 12 years earlier–and then reflecting on their words. In 2001, Melanie Velez had said ”I hadn’t expected to like working for a corporate firm — it seemed like such a different world — but I really do. I feel some financial responsibility for my sister’s education, but in the long run, I’d like to focus on pro bono work, returning to things that made me want to pursue a law degree. It’s that idealistic cliché — I want to change the world.”
‘I CRINGE A LITTLE BIT NOW WHEN I HEAR MYSELF READ THAT OUT LOUD’
A dozen years later, she concedes, “I cringe a little bit now when i hear myself read that out loud, in part because it sounds a little bit naive.” Velez left Big Law and took an 80% pay cut to work as a lawyer for the Southern Center for Human Rights in 2004.
Today, says Mary Beth Hogan, one of the original 21 who is now a Debevoise partner and one of the top lawyers on Wall Street, there are 25 women partners out of total of just under 150 partners. “the numbers are frustrating for sure. no matter what industry you are looking at there are about 15% to 20% percent women in an important leadership position and that number is not getting much higher.” Another woman portrayed in the video, Shannon Selden, is also a partner at the firm, earning her partnership in the same year she became a mother.
Yet, Hogan seems proud to convey a story from home. “One day i was putting my then three-year-old to bed at night and he said, ‘Mommy what does daddy do?’ I said, ‘Daddy’s a lawyer. just like mommy.’ ‘Wait a second,’ he said. ‘I thought only women could be lawyers.’”