Plugging the “Leaky Pipeline” of Women Attorney Attrition

Vol. 15 No. 9

Roberta D. Liebenberg is the chair of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession and a partner of Fine, Kaplan and Black, R.P.C., in Philadelphia.

For far too long, there has been a disproportionately high rate of attrition of women lawyers from the legal profession, which has been aptly described as the “leaky pipeline” phenomenon. Even though women have been entering the profession at roughly the same rate as men, by the time partnership decisions are made, the number of women available to be considered has decreased substantially. Despite significant efforts by law firms to retain their women lawyers, women all along the continuum, from associates to partners, are voting with their feet by leaving. Consequently, there are very few women moving into positions of real power and influence in law firms.

Numerous factors play a part in the exodus of women lawyers.  Some choose to leave the profession for entirely personal reasons.  For others, however, the decision to leave is influenced by the treatment of women in the profession, including the gross underrepresentation of women in law firm equity partner ranks and leadership positions and the concomitant lack of senior women to serve as role models and mentors. There is also a substantial disparity in compensation between male and female attorneys, which increases with seniority. Also contributing to attrition are unequal opportunities to handle significant matters for major clients, unfair or biased performance evaluations, onerous billable hours quotas, stigmatization of those who participate in part-time and flex-time programs, and unequal treatment in the allocation of client origination credit. Of course, some women opt out of the profession for personal reasons that have nothing to do with the culture of the legal profession.

Moreover, structural changes in law firms have further impeded the progress of women lawyers and led to increased dissatisfaction among women lawyers. Most notably, the increased utilization of two-tier and mixed-tier partnership tracks, combined with the attrition of women associates, has resulted in the percentage of women equity partners remaining relatively static at approximately 16 percent over the past several years, according to a 2009 National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL) Foundation. Also, law firms are making greater use of contract and staff attorneys, the overwhelming majority of whom are women. These positions offer lower pay, less job security, and no real prospects for advancement. Not surprisingly, women do not remain in them for long.

All of these factors have resulted in the creation of an inverse pyramid for women in law firms. The higher up you look at each level of a law firm, the smaller the percentage of women you find. Unless there is a profound shift to ensure the retention and advancement of women in law firms, the high rates of attrition will surely continue, and the long-standing leak in the pipeline will remain unplugged.

To address these problems, the ABA Commission on Women has developed the following best practices for both law firms and individual women lawyers:


Best practices for law firms

Ensuring equal assignment opportunities. Firms should develop metrics to track assignments to ensure that women are given opportunities to work on significant, high-revenue matters for important clients and partners.

Instituting gender-neutral evaluation systems. Clearly defined performance evaluation criteria should be formulated and communicated. Supervising lawyers need to be educated about implicit biases that can affect performance evaluations. Firm committees that evaluate associates must be diverse and include more than a token woman or minority lawyer.

Making partnership criteria transparent. Associates must be apprised of the specific competencies and skills they need to advance to partnership. Firms should monitor the advancement of women lawyers, particularly to equity partnership and leadership positions.

Revamping compensation systems. Billable hours should be de-emphasized and greater significance should be given to the quality and efficiency of the work performed. Crushing billable hours quotas often penalize women, who typically shoulder both family and professional responsibilities.

Increasing business development opportunities. Women lawyers must be provided meaningful business opportunities and training, including access to coaching, networking events, and client development functions.

De-stigmatizing alternative work arrangements. While over 90 percent of law firms have adopted part-time and flex-time work arrangements, less than 7 percent of all lawyers avail themselves of these options, and 81 percent of those who opt for such schedules are women. Unfortunately, there is still a stigma attached to women who utilize alternative work arrangements, and, therefore, many women are unwilling to do so. Commission research has found that women who worked part-time were perceived to be less committed, received more negative performance evaluations, and were not assigned complex and challenging matters necessary to advance in their firms. Consequently, in too many cases their partnership aspirations were derailed, and they left their firms.

Implementing “on-ramp” programs. Firms should institute programs to facilitate attorneys’ transition from part-time to full-time and to assist women who are returning to practice after taking a leave. Also, firms should create policies that enable those who are working part-time to attain partnership.


Best practices for individuals

Be pro-active in promoting your career. Let partners know of your interest in working on particular matters, and affirmatively seek out challenging and rewarding assignments.

Be visible. Women lawyers should strive to increase their profiles, both within their law firms and in their community. Become active in bar associations and community groups, look for speaking and writing opportunities, and seek other ways to attain leadership roles and enhance your reputation.

Network, network, network. Business development has become increasingly important, even for young associates. It is imperative to broaden your base of contacts and to affirmatively reach out in both social and business contexts for potential referrals.

Take risks. To advance in your career, you must be willing to take risks and not let occasional setbacks discourage or deter you.

Be strategic in working part-time. If you work part-time, be flexible and accessible so you can handle emergencies that arise on days when you are out of the office. Also, you should develop a strategic plan to transition back to full-time, seeking out mentors and champions who can help you.

The continued high rate of attrition of women attorneys hurts not only individual women, but also law firms and the profession as a whole. The retention and advancement of women lawyers is a core value, which must be given top priority. It is high time that we finally fix the leaky pipeline, and implementation of the best practices discussed above will help accomplish this important and salutary goal.


About the Commission on Women in the Profession

The ABA Commission on Women in the Profession is the national voice for women lawyers, forging a new and better profession that ensures that women have equal opportunities for professional growth and advancement commensurate with their male counterparts. Its new book, The Road to Independence: 101 Women’s Journeys to Starting Their Own Law Firms, is a series of letters written by women founders of a variety of law practices. Among the Commission’s programs are the annual Women in Law Leadership (WILL) Academy. 

Learn more about the Commission on Women.



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