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Hurdles highlight the horrors of legal culture

A gauntlet, for those rusty on the definition, is a corridor of armed men who use clubs and other weapons to beat an individual made to run between them.

That this is the metaphor Lauren Stiller Rikleen chose for the title of her extensively researched book on the professional hurdles faced by female attorneys is, in itself, depressing commentary on the business of law.

It's no secret that women face daunting obstacles to success in the legal profession . Despite comprising nearly half of all law school graduates, women are woefully underrepresented in the partner ranks of major law firms, and female lawyers drop out of the profession at a far higher rate than men. The reasons for this are manifold, and are chronicled in detail in ``Ending the Gauntlet: Removing Barriers to Women's Success in the Law," which reads like Rikleen's love letter to a job that has broken her heart.

The book is part of a sad genre that explores a central conundrum of the legal business: Why are so many bright people, who became lawyers not just to make money but because they genuinely believed the law would satisfy their ideals, trapped in jobs they despise? The titles say it all: ``The Betrayed Profession: Lawyering at the End of the Twentieth Century;" ``29 Reasons Not to Go to Law School."

Law schools, she writes, don't prepare graduates for practice and saddle them with debt that forces them into high-paying, soul-crushing jobs. Firms, for their part, fail to mentor young lawyers; subject them to childish disputes over pay and credit for landing clients; force them into a billing system that destroys home lives and encourages fraud; and emphasize marketing over legal expertise.

Much of this misery is gender-neutral . But women attorneys face additional challenges, Rikleen writes. There are the brutally long hours common in law firm life, especially hard on women raising children. There is the discomfort many female lawyers feel at golf tournaments and other testosterone-heavy events where so much rainmaking takes place.

There is also blatant mommy-tracking. One female lawyer told Rikleen ``it was like hitting a brick wall" when she had kids. The book is replete with similarly chilling excerpts from more than 100 interviews with women disillusioned with the practice of law.

It is when Rikleen purports to offer solutions that her book is weakest . She insists change will happen only if a courageous law firm puts forward a ``bold visionary agenda." But in an industry notoriously averse to risk, what firm will be so bold?

The book is meant to be a call to arms that will shake law firms out of their unhappy, unhealthy, unproductive ways. Instead, it feels like a demoralizing confirmation that modern legal culture is destined to continue to leave many lawyers frustrated and unfulfilled.

Rikleen does make practical suggestions, including more flexible hours for working moms and a billing system other than the oppressive hourly model. Still, the voices of desperation linger most . As one female lawyer said of her law firm experience: ``It has taken years off my life."

Sacha Pfeiffer can be reached at

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