Ever wish you could jump in a time machine and experience other eras? Maybe take a stroll in a more glamorous era, and relish the period costumes? Well, in case you needed a reminder, the past wasn’t all that. At least not if you’re a woman. (The past was also pretty shitty for other oppressed groups, but aren’t today’s focus.)

We got our hands on a few pages of a Biglaw memo meant to answer internal questions about interviewing prospective lawyers for a position at the firm. The section details how to deal with “Lady Lawyers” and, oh boy, is it a doozy. The memo is from 1956, and... it was a very different time. Ike was president, Elvis Presley made his debut on the Ed Sullivan Show, a gallon of gas cost 22 cents, and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act banning discrimination in the workplace was still 8 years away.


As damning (and, wow, is it damning) as this carefully worded memo is, remember, the firm was, at the time, far from alone in its practices or opinions.

The firm desires to be candid about its preference for male applicants and yet not unnecessarily discourage the distaff side of our profession. We have hired women lawyers in the past and we currently employ one woman who is outstanding in the blue sky field.

Well, at least they’re honest, I guess?

It is, however, also true that the firm does not rate a girl applicant on equal terms with the men applicants.

Welp, there it is. Laid out in all of its discriminatory glory. Males get to be MEN while females are girls, and no matter what women do, they cannot be equal.

If the paper records are the same, the man is given preference, barring some personality defect, on the grounds that being a man, he has probably had extra-curricular experience in the business world which will be of greater use to the firm than the experience open to most girls.

Here’s a fun game: let’s try to think up what kind of “personality defect” would be so insurmountable that a MAN would actually be treated the same as a WOMAN? I shudder to think of the possibilities.

Where grades disqualify a lady applicant it is preferable and quickest to terminate the interview on this ground. If, however, except for her sex the applicant deserves an “8” or better, the firm’s preference for man should be candidly faced. The discussion can then be turned to whether the applicant wants to get a “general practice” job or would consider a specialty in trusts and estates, estate taxes or “blue sky”. The result of this exploration should be noted on the resume.

I’ve got to be honest, I never realized “blue sky” was considered the distaff side of the law (not that it would have radically changed my on-campus interview choices). And I’m shocked estate taxes is something they’re pushing lady lawyers into. I’d’ve thought such enlightened gents would want to keep the fairer sex away from numbers and figures.

Next, an option should be given to the lady applicant either to proceed further with the knowledge that she must overcome a preference for male associates or to withdraw and use her valuable time where such a preference may not apply.

Just look at the handy-dandy list of open-minded (or at least not openly discriminatory) law firms in the 1950s and you’ll see... not much. It is a neat rhetorical trick though, to present it like a choice. Get the pesky women out of your office, and make them feel like it was their idea.

The firm will probably not suffer from its preference for men if the desire to be candid so as to be fair to lady applicants is stressed along with the fact that the firm does not give a final “no” to lady applicants because it wants to stay flexible from year to year and review its position in the light of each outstanding lady applicant who appears. After such an applicant has seen one or two partners, the responsible associate should get them to decide what further disposition is in order.

And there it is: the naked self-interest that underlies the memo exposed. The firm engaged in this kind of behavior because they knew they would “not suffer.” It’s a bit of a shock to read this kind of undisguised sexism when the 21st variety tends to be more unconscious.

Read the memo excerpt, in all its Courier New glory, here.

Also on Above the Law:

Biglaw Memo From Top Firm Advises That Women ‘Don’t Giggle,’ Don’t ‘Show Cleavage’