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Student presents paper on women blogging for workplace equality.

August 14, 2008

PHILADELPHIA - An email making the rounds this month in the legal blogosphere from a female attorney laid off six days after her miscarriage - “What kind of people squander human relationships so easily?” - is the latest example of women lawyers using non-legal methods to advocate for their rights in the workplace. “One would expect that women lawyers, when confronted with unfair hiring practices, unequal pay, or unjust choices, would turn to the legal system,” writes Alison I. Stein, a student at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. “Nonetheless, a growing group of women lawyers are using the Internet - and, in particular, blogging - to resolve their disputes, address their personal grievances, challenge implicit male bias engrained in the profession, and share and obtain the information they need to become stronger bargainers in the workplace.” Stein will present her paper - “Women Lawyers Blog for Workplace Equality: Blogging as a Feminist Legal Method” - at the Joint Annual Meetings of Law and Society Association and Canadian Law and Society Association, May 30 in Montreal. She will be joined on a panel by law professors from City University of New York, University of Illinois, and Cleveland State University. Her paper also will be published in a forthcoming issue of the Yale Journal of Law and Feminism. “From cattle ranchers to diamond merchants to third-wave feminists … groups of people opt out of the legal system - and instead use personalized and informal methods of rights assertion - as a means of ‘overcoming the ineffectiveness’ of state-sponsored laws,” writes Stein. For a much earlier, low-tech version of the same technique, Stein points to Myra Bradwell, who in 1873 was denied membership to the Illinois State Bar because “the natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for the many occupations of civil life.” Bradwell responded by establishing what became the country’s most widely circulated legal newspaper, the Chicago Legal News, in which she “advocated for legal reforms in women’s rights, child custody and in the legal system … and transformed the public’s perceptions about women practicing law.” But that transformation went only so far, Stein argues, because while nearly one-half of all law school graduates since 1992 have been women, only about 15 percent of law firm partners are female and women comprise only 25 percent of tenured law school professors, the career goal that Stein has set for herself. Female lawyers are being “pushed” out of the profession by “inflexible jobs, lack of good, affordable childcare, and lack of paid leave to take care of sick children,” she writes. In 2006, concern about the rates at which women opt out of the legal profession led a group of female law students from 10 of the nation’s top law schools to create the blog “Ms. JD: Changing the Face of the Legal Profession,” where members provide “networking opportunities, critical analysis of relevant news, and thoughtful discussions for women about their chosen fields of law.” Newer, similar blogs include “Up to PAR” (a blog started by the Project for Attorney Retention) and “Building a Better Legal Profession.” Female lawyers turn to blogging because the law’s ability to vindicate their rights is limited, their grievances are born out of institutional biases or mindsets, and because the anonymity of blogging lets them give voice to their complaints without risking their reputations. For example, a 2007 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court (Ledbetter v. Goodyear) held that victims of pay discrimination must challenge that discrimination within 90 days. But “if a woman does not know that she is being paid unequally for more than 180 days after her first paycheck, her claim is barred,” Stein writes. “By blogging about what various firms pay men and women, and by using blogs to discuss various ways in which to approach salary discussion, women are using an alternative method to address grievances that are legal in character.” Stein concludes: “Blogs like Ms. JD and Building a Better Legal Profession appear to have succeeded in leveraging market pressures to change business practices. Legal recruiting directors across the country have seen an increase in the numbers of men and women–both law students and lateral hires–who ask about work/life issues during the interview process.” Or, as the laid-off big-law female lawyer writes in her email circulating in the blogosphere: “We are human beings first before we are partners or associates.”