Robin Dahlberg: Billable Hours

Published on 07/24/2021

I came to photography later in life. I spent the first part of my adult life practicing law – the first five years at a large New York corporate law office and the next 20 years at the American Civil Liberties Union. About ten years ago, I left the ACLU to devote myself to photography full-time. Shortly thereafter, I enrolled in the University of Hartford’s photography MFA program. Billable Hours began as my thesis project for that program.

One of my Hartford advisors had suggested that I do something about lawyers and law firms. Initially, I was dismissive. I could not image how the daily life of a lawyer could be visually interesting. Yet, as I got into the project, I realized that I had something to say, not so much about the nuts and bolts of practicing law, but rather about women in the corporate workspace.

I had graduated from law school in the mid-1980s when women were entering the legal profession in large numbers for the first time. My first legal job was as a junior associate at the large New York firm I referred to above. Although my firm, like most other New York law firms, was eager to hire women lawyers, it did not really know what to do with us once we walked in the door. The firm’s male lawyers, particularly those who had been practicing law for some time, treated us less as lawyers and more as sisters, secretaries or romantic interests.

The pressure to conform to the firm culture – which was largely white and male - was palpable. That culture required that all attorneys relinquish any sort of life outside of the office so that we could work 16-hour days. It permitted male attorneys to refer to each other by nicknames or last names, as if they were fraternity brothers or members of an all-male sports team, to comment on the physical appearance of their female colleagues, and to try to seduce those women while in the office or on firm outings. Any woman who was promoted was commonly thought to have “slept her way to the top.”

While it did not start out that way, my photo project evolved into a mediation on the five years that I spent at that firm.   Almost all of the photographs in the book are staged – photographed at my husband’s law firm – we met in law school.  I used my husband, my sister, my art school friends and my husband’s lawyer colleagues to create photographic images that, while not necessarily depicting actual events, reflected how I had felt as a female attorney while I was at the firm. 

I demonstrated the challenges that women face in the corporate workplace by focusing on how men and women physically occupy, act within and decorate the space.  Men act as if they own the place – whether they are in the conference room, standing in the hallways, waiting for the elevator, sitting in their desk chairs.  They use their facial expressions, hand gestures and body language to assert their dominance. And, they are always surrounded by mounds of important looking paper.

Women, on the other hand, act as if they have just arrived; they are late; they are lost; they are stressed; they are on the corporate treadmill with their heads cut off.  And, they are surrounded by objects that reflect on their personal appearance and wellbeing. 

Although corporate workspaces may seem more accommodating today, that is hardly the case. Men continue to be promoted in greater numbers. Although more women than men graduate from law school, less than 20% of all big firm equity partners are women. Those female partners make one third less than their male counterparts. Women are compelled to choose between having families and getting ahead, a choice that most men do not have to make. And, as the #MeToo movement has shown, sexual harassment is still alive and well.

It was important to me to approach the themes in my book with a sense of humor. My own law firm experience was so over-the-top that it is laughable. Moreover, stridency can be off-putting. Humor, on the other hand, can serve as an invitation to dialogue. And ultimately, that’s what I want the book to do – to add to a conversation that has been going on for years and needs to continue.