Success against the statistical likelihood of failure

March 7, 2011


Sandra Giannone Ezell is Managing Partner of Bowman and Brooke LLP’s Richmond, Virginia, office and a trial lawyer. The opinions expressed are her own.Thomson Reuters is hosting a live blog on March 8, 2011 to mark the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day.

I was honoured to be asked to share my voice in this forum on this auspicious day that celebrates the International Day of the Woman.  I can be found most days, growing my trial practice, running my office, delivering speeches, making it rain and blogging on

By night, I am a mother to four, a wife and, life permitting, an intermittent sports fan.  I thought about what I could possibly add to this that would stand out in celebration of the distance that women have travelled to actually attain success in the legal profession, or any profession, in the last 50 years.

I started out in my profession more than 20 years ago and at that time, in my law school class, as in most law school classes, then and now, the distribution of women to men was even, if not slightly more women.  At every single mile marker along the way, however, that ratio has shifted.  And while the actual numbers have changed the more than two decades that I have been doing this, the trends have not.

If you compare the number of first year associates to mid-year associates, the numbers begin to skew in favor of men.  If you look at senior associates, depending on the time frame and the study, women are represented at about 50 percent of men.

Once you work your way into the partnership ranks within an organization, there are fewer and fewer women, with ownership being vested in 15 percent women to men in our nation’s law firms.  Firm leadership, the executive and management committees, we have single digit representation.

You may say, wait a minute, this does not sound like a tribute to how far we have come, but how far we have not come.

But, if you think about what the implications of this reality (whether you blame the firms who do not flex or the women who do not stay) are on those of us who are here, who have succeeded, who have arrived, it is truly amazing.

Every day, we went to work and the statistical probability was that we would not get past the next mile stone.  Work was assigned based on that assumption, client exposure was based on that assumption and compensation was based on that assumption.  These opportunities lost then made it even harder to succeed, thus creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of the decline of women in our profession.

So, when you measure your success and you celebrate your accomplishments, remember, that you achieved it against the background of an expectation of failure and then it becomes all the more remarkable.

Moreover, now that you have arrived, you have the capacity to change the system, the change the game, to change the expectations so that the next generation will not have the same playing field.  Being a sports fan, I believe our games should not be rigged and that they should be played on a level field.

Being a mom, I hope that my children, the boys and the girls will have a different set of expectations about the women of the future than the women and men have had during my career. As a professional, I recognize the accomplishment of success for what it is-odds defying- and celebrate it with you today.

Picture Credit: Justice Elena Kagan walks down the steps of the Supreme Court with Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts following her formal investiture ceremony in Washington October 1, 2010. REUTERS/Larry Downing

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