Last month the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a ruling that sent tremors through the male-dominated legal profession. In a rare unanimous decision that will encourage women lawyers in their struggle for equality, the Court said the attorney Elizabeth Hishon had the right to bring suit for sex discrimination against her former employer, the prestigious Atlanta firm of King & Spalding, which had denied her a partnership in 1979. Last week Hishon's attorney, Emmet Bondurant, reported an out-of-court settlement of the case, explaining, "The principle issue was won in the Supreme Court." The partnerships that own private law firms, control their activities and divide their profits are overwhelmingly male preserves. There are 93,000 women among the nation's 612,000 lawyers. Women make up 30 percent of law firm associates whose salaries average $50,000, but hold only 5 percent of the partnerships, which in larger cities can be worth more than $100,000 per year. The Supreme Court's ruling put the law firms on notice that they may have to defend their partnership selection methods in federal court. Modest, publicity-shy Elizabeth Hishon, 39, lives in an Atlanta condo with her lawyer husband, Robert, and has become a partner in another Atlanta firm. A graduate of Wellesley College and Columbia Law School, Hishon had been employed by King & Spalding for six years but was told she would not make partner. Hishon's counterattack has emboldened several prominent female lawyers to tell of the subtle and overt forms of discrimination they have encountered in the legal profession.

Congresswoman Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.) still gets irritated just thinking about it. In 1964 she emerged from Harvard Law School, diploma in hand, and not one Denver firm had interviewed her. "They were just not interested in me, although they were interested in my husband," she recalls. "The firms that did interview women were very blunt about it. They would say, 'We just had to do this to look good. But we don't plan to hire any women.' "

According to Schroeder, 43, the Harvard placement office, which took for granted the masculine marketplace, was no help. "I remember them telling us to look ugly," says Schroeder. "One lady there advised us to roll our nylons down around our ankles, the idea being to look dowdy so that the firms could stuff you back in the corner where you would forever write wills and never have to be seen."

Former Federal Communications Commissioner Anne Jones, 49, also found that sex discrimination came with her law school diploma. In 1961 she graduated first in her class at Boston College Law School but was excluded from consideration for the prized clerkship to the chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. The problem, she was told, was that she'd be overseeing the other judges' clerks in the state, who were all men. Two of the firms that interviewed her wanted to make sure she planned to use birth control. Ropes & Gray, the Boston firm that finally hired her, started her at 15 percent less than her male counterparts, Jones says, largely because it expected her to be a casualty to motherhood. Jones remembers telling the man who hired her, "When I'm 65 years old, if I'm still Miss Jones and have never missed a day of work, will I get a retroactive increase?" He laughed. Last year Jones left her FCC post to take a partnership in a prominent Washington law firm. Even so, she gained the coveted status by making a lateral move from outside the firm. In general, women seeking partnerships from within a firm are much less successful. "There still is a lot of discrimination," Jones says.

Margaret Heckler, 53, Secretary of Health and Human Services in the Reagan Administration, graduated from Boston College Law School in 1956. Although she was in the top 5 percent of her class and was editor of the law review, she was nevertheless "quite spurned by established law firms in Boston." On one interview during the '60s, she was asked whether she had children. She had three. Did she want more? Heckler answered that she was a serious professional and the size of her family was irrelevant. At this point the man owned up that hiring a mother was simply "unthinkable." Says Heckler: "The experience was forever etched in my mind." So was the fellow's name. Years later, when Heckler was a Massachusetts Congresswoman, the same man requested her support for his candidacy for the state judiciary. He had forgotten the fateful interview. "I called him," remembers Heckler, "and said I would not only not consider it, but I would inform the Governor of his insensitivity and the inequity in judging my capacity simply on the basis of my being a woman and a mother." Heckler delightedly adds that he did not get the job.

Patricia Roberts Harris, 60', was invited to join the Wall Street firm of Fried, Frank in 1970. Harris had already served as Ambassador to Luxembourg and as dean of the Howard University Law School. No matter. "I cannot say that I ever reached even the middle level of compensation for partners of my experience," she says. "The problem is that it's very difficult for women to be what they call 'rainmakers,' the bringers-in of business."

Harris had made her mark elsewhere before she moved laterally into Fried, Frank. Thus, even if she was unable to induce the hoped-for shower of gold, she had a measure of leverage. She went on to hold two posts in the Carter cabinet. Until recently the female associate was ghettoized in trusts and estates because, as everyone knows, women are "good at details." Women, says Margaret Heckler, "were buried in the bowels of firms, doing research, excellent work, but not being allowed into the courtroom." Yet even in the early days of her civil and criminal trial practice, Heckler says she found no discrimination in court. "People listened and judged me and my cases on their merits," she says. "State Street [Boston] law firms could not judge me on merit."

Sexism continues to be firmly entrenched, even at Elizabeth Hishon's former firm. Last summer, during a weekend outing in North Carolina, some of the men at King & Spalding reportedly decided it would be fun to stage a wet T-shirt contest, starring the firm's female associates. (Bathing suits were later substituted.) Janine Harris, 36, now a partner at Peabody, Lambert & Meyers in Washington, D.C., tells of an acquaintance at another firm who was turned down for an associate's position after she refused to sleep with a member of the firm's hiring committee. "Earlier in my career I had suggestions myself," says Harris, "that a little 'social activity' wouldn't hurt my chances for advancement."

Women not only have to be better than men to make partner, say leading women lawyers, but they are judged by different standards. "I see it happen all the time in partnership decisions about women," says one well-placed female lawyer. "Her personality is invariably discussed. Does she get along with people? Is she too aggressive? Has she a chip on her shoulder about being a woman? Somebody says, 'I saw her cry once, so we can't send her into court.' But when a man comes up for partnership, unless he has an extraordinarily difficult personality, it doesn't even get a mention. You hear what a good tax lawyer he is, how much business he has brought in."

The extraordinary woman has always been able to overcome sex discrimination, says Washington attorney Ruth Prokop, 45, who has established her own firm in Georgetown. "But," she says, "you don't want just the star to emerge. You want fair opportunity for the group. That's why the Supreme Court decision is so important."

Asked how she surmounted discrimination and eventually became "the only woman partner ever" at the New York-based firm of Curtis, Mallet-Prevost, Colt & Mosle, she answers, "I have a particular type of personality. Terribly aggressive, very outspoken. I'll confront sex discrimination if I even begin to see it coming." She says all this in a soft, utterly feminine Texas accent.

  • Contributors:
  • Marsha Dubrow.