DOING THE HOUSEKEEPING OF THE FIRM
Many of the women interviewed in partnerships with a husband (or in a small firm with a husband and unrelated partners) reported that they were performing the practice's nonlegal administrative tasks—hiring secretaries, running the office, and keeping the work calendar. Performing these tasks came at a price. These “sex-appropriate” duties unfortunately did not develop the attorney's skill or contacts and usually condemned her to professional obscurity. In addition to performing the “housekeeping” tasks, women in partnerships with their husbands were limited to the same specialties as other women lawyers of the time—matrimonial cases, probate work, and realestate law. In a diversified practice this prevented the women from competing with their husbands. It also often gave husbands an opportunity to avoid work they did not care to do—the more mundane or “emotional” hand-holding counseling work lawyers are often called upon to perform but which is not highly regarded in the profession. One consequence of this division of labor was that women did not build an independent client base, had a lower chance of getting referrals, and had low visibility in the profession.
Although theoretically husbands and wives were equal partners and drew equal shares, in fact, women tended to earn less money or ceded control over the money to their husband-partners. Further, wifeattorneys usually felt wedded not only to their husbands but to their joint firm, and therefore unable to leave when a better opportunity came along.
Nevertheless, women lawyers in such practices had real jobs in the law and many of their peers did not. They were subject to fewer role strains because the demands of their work were not in conflict with their domestic duties. Husbands knew when their wives had a hard week at the office and, because it was a joint family enterprise, they were not likely to complain. Furthermore, husbands could and did cover for their
Most wife-partners I interviewed in the 1960s and 1970s presented a rosy picture of their work situations and even those who were dissatisfied showed resignation more than resentment. Yet when I interviewed other lawyers who knew the couples, they sometimes provided insights into their relationships. Colleagues reported that husbands could and did take advantage of their wives. Some wives complained to friends that their husbands used them as secretaries, for example. “He says it's easier to give me the things to do than to explain them to a secretary” was a common observation.
Yet most of the wife-partners suppressed their resentment because the need to maintain good family relations was paramount, and there was no place else to go. Rebels were scarce, but they did exist. One unusually dissatisfied lawyer-wife turned the problem into an advantage, reported a friend. “She complained that it was always ‘Darling, get me this form or that one from the file,’ until she was so disgusted, she went out and got herself a judgeship.” Of course, she could do this only as women began to be appointed to the judiciary in a changing social environment.