May 17, 2019 Chair's Column

In or Out? New Research on Why Experienced Women Lawyers Leave the Legal Profession

By Stephanie A. Scharf

For the past year, the Commission on Women in the Profession, working with the ABA Presidential Initiative on Achieving Long-Term Careers for Women in Law, has focused on understanding the factors that enhance or impede career trajectories for women lawyers. In summer and early fall 2019, four innovative research reports will be published with new insights about why experienced women lawyers leave the legal profession and why they stay.

The first study provides novel data on the everyday work experiences of women in large private law firms and through simultaneous perspectives of men, women, and managing partners. Of particular interest are data on the extent to which firms are providing experienced women the necessary “access to success” for advancement into the upper ranks of partnership and firm leadership, and why even experienced women stay or leave their firms. As a hint, there is somewhat of a “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” quality about what firms need to achieve a highly diverse cadre of women lawyers at the top echelon of firms.

The second study entails a first-ever survey of the professional outcomes for women and men who graduated from law school 20 or more years ago, across all areas of practice and covering those who have left the legal profession. A striking finding is that by the time 25 plus years have passed after law school graduation, some 25 percent of men and 40 percent of women are no longer in a job that requires a law degree. Our findings raise a key question: At a time when legal careers should be flourishing, why have so many women (and men) decided not to practice law, and what can we do about that tremendous loss of talent?

Our third and fourth reports rest on new personal interviews and focus group data as part of a deep dive into the reasons why women stay and why they leave the legal profession, with a special national focus on women lawyers of color. I am hopeful that the information we provide will be used as building blocks for lawyers and leaders in many different practice settings, to truly enhance diversity at the senior levels of organizations.

The research on long-term careers owes its impetus to former ABA President Hilarie Bass, whose energy and commitment led to her forming the presidential initiative for 2017–2018, which was generously continued by current ABA President Robert Carlson. The work of the initiative also owes a great deal to the enthusiasm and efforts of Roberta “Bobbi” Liebenberg, with whom I have the honor of co-chairing the initiative. Bobbi is one of the legal profession’s most generous and insightful leaders for advancing women in the law, as well as a role model for women in sophisticated legal roles.

Leaders can point the way, but I believe that many, many people—men and women—contribute to the mission of achieving gender parity in the legal profession. The Commission on Women actively supports programs, publications, and processes for advancing women in the law. We welcome your ideas along with whatever time you can give to making things happen. Please do not be shy about contacting us!

With warm regards,

Stephanie A. Scharf, Chair, ABA Commission on Women in the Profession

By Stephanie A. Scharf

Stephanie A. Scharf is a founding partner of Scharf Banks Marmor LLC in Chicago. She is chair of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession and co-chairs the ABA President Initiative on Achieving Long-Term Careers for Women in Law.

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