- Big law firms are still struggling to retain women lawyers. This article highlights considerations related to leaving and the steps to take in starting your own practice.
Big law firms are still struggling to retain women lawyers. Women continue to leave. Some found their own law firms. This article highlights considerations related to leaving and the steps to take in starting your own practice.
Joining a big law firm can seem like a secure move. You may also feel like you “made it” if you become a partner at a big law firm. A certain level of prestige is associated with being an associate or partner at a big law firm. Big law firms may (or may appear) to offer mentoring, sophisticated and challenging work, and readily available clients.
Being at a big law firm can provide the opportunity to be around some very skilled lawyers and to learn a lot about our chosen substantive aspects of practice. Big law firms may also create opportunities to develop a network that will serve you throughout your career. You may be able to get early visibility that would not be available by starting your own law firm immediately. Big law firms may be committed to CLE and educational opportunities. Big law firms typically have IT staffs. An established client base is likely to exist. A big law firm also may encourage speaking and writing.
Women leave big law firms for many reasons. A common one is control over compensation. Another reason might be lifestyle. In some instances, you may join a law firm for what you thought would be available, but isn’t. For example, mentoring might be a term that gets thrown about, but doesn’t really happen. In some cases, a woman attorney might be overlooked in terms of client opportunities. A female attorney may also find that gender discrimination still exists.
In serving on various American Bar Association Futures Task Forces and the ABA Commission on the Future of the Profession, I have heard endless disheartening stories about how women continue to struggle in big law firms. By outside appearances, many of these lawyers seem to be those who have “made it,” yet they often express significant frustration. In the current climate, the challenge for law firms may not only be about retaining women lawyers, but retaining good lawyers generally. Law firms need to find a way that lawyers at different career stages and with different skill sets can feel valued. Many law firms create cultures that value two things: working endless hours and making rain. Such an environment can be very unhealthy for those who have differing skills, or a desire for a personal life that is not completely overwhelmed by one’s work life.
Law firms should provide mentors who are sincere in helping other lawyers succeed, support women in rainmaking efforts to the same degree that men are supported, and should create cultures where bias is consistently addressed and those exhibiting gender bias are held accountable. Law firms should consider making coaching available to lawyers.
There is a Chinese proverb that says “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Big law firms should consider having a deliberate mentoring program for women. That mentoring should provide a clear path for becoming a leader and an equity partner in the firm. Many areas of legal practice have a very high learning curve. A commitment to educating lawyers and providing CLE is important. Big law firms should assist lawyers with client development from a very early stage. Watching someone else develop business relationships is great, but the goal should be teaching young female attorneys how to develop their own client relationships.
If you start your own law firm as a solo, you may initially be the lawyer, the IT person, the marketing person, the office manager, etc. You might have no leadership experience. If so, that skill will be required quickly. Non-billable time will take a larger chunk of your time than you think
When you own your own practice, you are the boss. You decide on firm culture. You decide which clients you take. You choose your own assistant. You choose your technology. Owning your own practice creates an enormous sense of empowerment. You might end up working the same or more hours, but your stress related to the hours is likely to be significantly less because of the control you gain over how and when you practice.