HUSBAND-WIFE PRACTICES AS A RESPONSE TO
My first study of women attorneys revealed extensive discrimination both in law school admission and in employment. In the late 1960s they were just about 3 percent of law school students and 3 percent of all lawyers. This was before a number of lawsuits opened the doors of law schools that had placed quotas on female recruitment, and the doors of law offices—large and small—that were closed to women attorneys. Today, women constitute about a quarter of all lawyers and more than 40 percent of all law school students. In my first study, most women attorneys who were not in practice with their husbands or fathers worked for the government, in law schools (usually as research assistants or librarians), or for firms, or had their own solo practices. I followed some of them later on and encountered new ones in the late 1970s. The couples I encountered in the succeeding decades tended to work in firms with other attorneys because that was where the growth in the legal profession was and because antinepotism policies were no longer operative.
As I noted above, most women worked in law partnerships with their husbands because they couldn't get jobs elsewhere or believed they could not. Many of their husbands encouraged this arrangement because it was advantageous to them. For a male independent practitioner, having his wife as a partner meant he had a devoted and a far better than average attorney. Most women who had graduated from law school in the 1960s and 1970s had to surmount many obstacles. Yet, they usually entered law school with higher Law School Aptitude Test (LSAT) scores on average than men, got higher grades in their law school classes than men, and were dedicated to professional life. They were the survivors in an usually punishing environment in which only the brilliant and hardy women survived.
For the women attorneys, partnerships with husbands were a safe harbor in a hostile professional world. Other male lawyers might be suspicious of a woman lawyer and doubt her capacities, her femininity, and her motives, but the lawyer to whom she was married did not.
However, most of the partnerships studied in the mid 1960s and 1970s were not characterized by equality either ideologically or in practice. Yet, given the contribution of both husband and wife to the family income, they probably were more egalitarian than most other marriages of their generation. Husband and wife law partners depended on each other, felt a common stake in the their firm, and were less competitive than other partners.
Yet, husband-wife partnerships tended to adapt the sex division of labor within their firms to that of the profession. Not unlike many workplaces today, including larger firms, the men usually did the “outside” work such as client contact, courtroom appearances, and other highprofile work. The women typically did the less visible work, such as writing briefs and researching cases. They also tended to the office management—the “housekeeping” of the firm.
Neither partner saw these arrangements as problematic or as sexist. In the mid 1960s and 1970s, it was still unusual for women to handle litigation or argue cases in court—it was believed that women did not want to do those things and were not good at them. Wife-lawyers accepted the prevailing cultural view about sex differences in interests and ability. Thus, they thought it was more appropriate for their husbands to go to court while they did the “backroom” work of the law firm
Wife-lawyers usually defined themselves as their husbands' “helpmates” and saw their professional roles as part and parcel of their family roles. They used this definition to explain their presence in a “masculine” occupation and at the same time to prove they were still feminine. Because they defined their activity as helping their husbands, it was socially acceptable to be in a “masculine” profession.