I spent nearly 10 years at a world-class international law firm that had disproportionately more men than women at the partnership level. And while the number of women who entered the firm was the same as men, the number of women who left was greater.
Why was this? It was a question I devoted a lot of time to exploring in my capacity as co-chair of the firm’s Women’s Network, which I did alongside my client work, such as listing Jimmy Choo on the London Stock Exchange and advising Budweiser APAC on its initial public offering, the world’s second largest in 2019.
Along the way, I listened to my female colleagues’ stories and felt I understood some of the root causes of the firm’s seeming inability to retain women equally and promote them to partnership. These same root causes are well-documented in studies like the American Bar Association’s 2019 report, “Walking Out The Door” and in the ABA’s 2021 report, “In Their Own Words: Experienced Women Lawyers Explain Why They are Leaving Their Law Firms and the Profession.” These causes include high-level, systemic structural and cultural problems, as well as the everyday battles women are fighting while combatting unequal access to opportunities, conscious and unconscious biases, and noninclusive workplaces. All have a cumulative effect on women and their career trajectories.
A few concrete examples: I knew of women, for example, who were told during their annual review that they shouldn’t be so “obvious” about their ambition, reflecting a bias against something for which men aren’t accused or penalized. I also knew of all-male teams being appointed for industry conferences, which begged the question of whether women were even considered. I knew of client relationship-building events geared toward and attended primarily by male colleagues, which directly impacted which associates were later staffed on those clients’ (possibly high-profile) transactions.
That said, I felt the Women’s Network had made some progress, such as working to implement a new firm policy of using gender-neutral language (rather than “Dear Sirs”), and creating the Every Day Gender Equality Commitment, signed by more than 2,000 people across the firm, agreeing to take 10 specified actions to confront and transform the problems that still persisted.
And yet, despite our perceived progress, and after years of bearing witness as senior female colleagues left the firm—as if on cue—it took facing a block in my own career journey to truly understand what was happening.
Some law firms are losing women because they are not listening to the women. Want to retain women in law firms? Ask the women what they need. Listen to them. Act on it.
Allow me to share my story
A short time into my maternity leave with my first child, Lily, I began feeling nervous about returning to work. For a decade, all I knew was a life in which I worked around the clock. It was not uncommon for me to get home from work at 9 p.m., only to receive another email from a client who needed something by morning. I didn’t mind; I loved what I did, felt grateful to have my job and worked extremely hard to get to where I was. I also felt inspired, believing that through my own career progression in a male-dominated field, I was lifting up other women with me, elevating the next generation of women to come.
Nothing can prepare you for the transformation that is motherhood. I believe it changes you, alchemically. My pre-baby professional life was not going to work for me post-baby. Organizations seem to expect you to remain unchanged, even in the U.K.—where I have worked since graduating from Cornell Law School—a country with some of the longest maternity leave allowances in the world.
Rather than always being on edge and on email, without the space to be a fully present mom, my intention was instead to be a dedicated corporate lawyer during work hours and a dedicated mom during nonwork hours.
And so, I strategized how to reconcile my dual priorities of work and motherhood. After extensive reflection and research, such as talking to other working moms both at the firm and elsewhere, I submitted a proposal to work fixed hours—closer to a traditional 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.—upon my return from maternity leave. I outlined how the arrangement would work in practice with transparency with clients, good teamwork and communication internally. I was also, of course, willing to take a commensurate pay cut.
I felt confident in my proposal, given my consistently strong performance, coupled with the firm’s stated commitments to women and diversity. I also felt emboldened, having come to see that the skills I was strengthening through motherhood—judgment, flexibility, risk mitigation, composure, solution-finding, to name only a few—were directly transferable to my career. I knew motherhood made me a better lawyer, and motherhood was not a liability but rather an asset.
When the firm rejected my request, I was saddened, surprised and angry. I was told that working fixed hours was incompatible with client-facing, transactional work, and the team would be both unable to meet client demand and unable to reorganize work within the team. The firm said I would have “no value” if I were to work fixed hours. I was told no one had ever done it before. I was told it was impossible. Everything was impossible until somebody did it.
I tried to keep an open mind when the partners in my team, both men, offered two alternative suggestions that “could potentially be accommodated” (a four-day week or reduced overall workload). I had already been warned against these ideas by women who tried and failed with them. Through additional conversations, career coaching and soul-searching, I tried to come up with another proposal, but I couldn’t. I had already asked for what I felt I needed.
I carried the hurt like grief. My career always meant so much to me. Now what? Resigning and setting out on a new path as in-house counsel felt like my only option. I became a statistic, joining all the other women who also felt they had no choice but to leave their law firms. My story is my own, but it is also the stories of women you will never hear. To paraphrase author/poet Maya Angelou, I come as one, but I stand as all of us.
The firm would keep the status quo, and the status quo was male.
And now, with the perspective gained from time and experience in my new role on the corporate legal team at a global media company, I ask: Are we willing to keep making progress only at the edges, moving the needle so faintly year after year without addressing what is really going on? When presented with a choice, will law firms continue to preserve their business model and the status quo, at the expense of losing women, along with their talents and unique perspectives?
I will not accept that in 2021, we do not have the collective capability to come up with a new model of working. Should we just throw up our hands and say it’s too hard? We are lawyers! One of our primary roles is to solve problems. If a client came to us with this problem, would we tell them it is impossible?
Is it that we can’t? Or that we won’t?
That we’re unable? Or that we’re unwilling?