July 31, 2018

Annual 2018: Why women leave the law—and what we can do about it

The issue of women leaving the practice of law at what should be the height of their careers, and what can be done about it was the focus of one of ABA President Hilarie Bass’ initiatives. At the ABA Annual Meeting in Chicago, a program will lay out what a year’s worth of scientific research has revealed about the dilemma.

“Long-Term Careers for Women in Law: What’s Pushing Women Out and What Can We Do to Keep Them in the Profession?” will be held on Friday, Aug. 3, from 2:30-3:45 p.m., at the Fairmont Millennium Park, 3rd Level, Crystal Room.

Even though women have comprised nearly half of all law students and incoming associates at law firms for many years, they remain greatly outnumbered by men in the senior ranks of law firms, corporate law departments and other practice settings.  If steps are not taken to change the current trend, the percentage of women equity partners will remain stuck at under 20 percent for decades to come.

The presidential initiative, Achieving Long-Term Careers for Women in Law, focused on the unique issues and career dynamics facing women lawyers in practice for over 20 years, and explored the reasons for their disproportionately high rate of attrition. It also looked at the career paths of senior women lawyers who continue to practice.

The initiative undertook three avenues of research:

  • ALM Intelligence surveyed managing partners and lawyers with 20-plus years of experience at 350 firms to explore women’s career trajectories.

  • The ABA surveyed law school alumni 20-plus years after graduation, covering all areas in which lawyers work, finding what percentages are still practicing law and asking why and why not.

  • The ABA and American Bar Foundation joined forces to conduct focus groups to uncover what participants like and dislike about the practice of law. The focus groups took place in the past year in Boston, New York City, Washington, D.C., Miami, Chicago, San Francisco and Houston. They consisted of women still practicing law after 15 or more years, as well as women who dropped out of practicing after 15 or more years.


In addition, national summits were held at Harvard Law School in November and at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law in June to discuss the issues and identify best practices.

At the program, panelist Joyce Sterling, emeritus professor of legal ethics and the legal profession at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, will discuss the results of the focus groups. She says that they revealed that most of the aspects of law practice that women disliked involved some form of discrimination, including:

  • Paternalism
  • Tokenism
  • Lack of “face-time”
  • An atmosphere of competition vs. teamwork
  • Sexual harassment
  • Issues with credit allocation.


When asked why gender disparities remain at law firms, Sterling says the focus groups pointed to:

  • Closed compensation system
  • The credit system disadvantages women
  • The breadmaker/homemaker stereotypes persist
  • The “boys club” limits opportunities for women
  • Ageism impacts men and women differently.


The focus groups had ideas for how to change the system, she says, and among them are:

  • Develop succession plans for distributing credit
  • Diversify leadership and make sure leadership champions diversity
  • Provide continuous training with a focus on business development
  • Offer on-ramping opportunities
  • Include men in diversity discussions and policies
  • Formalize policies.


Stephanie Scharf, co-chair of the Advisory Council for ABA Presidential Initiative on Achieving Long-Term Careers for Women in Law, chair of the ABA Commission on Women and partner at Scharf Banks Marmor LLC in Chicago, and Andrew Neblett, president of ALM Intelligence in New York, will discuss the ALM Intelligence survey results.

She notes that regarding their work at law firms, men and women reported stark differences in:

  • having received unwanted sexual advances, requests for sexual favors or other conduct of a sexual nature
  • having experienced a lack of access to business development opportunities
  • being denied or overlooked for advancement or promotional opportunities
  • being denied a salary increase or bonus
  • having experienced a lack of access to sponsors
  • having felt treated as a token representative for diversity.
  • When asked about factors that affected why they left the legal profession,
  • Almost three times as many men as women identified an emphasis on marketing or originating business as important or very important factors in why they left
  • Almost half of women and one-fifth of men identified caretaking commitments as important or very important factors in why they left.


These and many other findings will be reported on at the program, with the final report, which will include a series of recommendations that law firms can follow to address this phenomenon, expected by the end of September.

“The research should allow us to understand, on the basis of systematic survey data, why women leave the profession and why they stay,” Scharf says, “and to use that information to frame effective employment policies so that law firms, corporate law departments and other legal employers have the best tools possible to retain and advance talented women.”

The panel will be moderated by Roberta Liebenberg, co-chair of the Advisory Council for ABA Presidential Initiative on Achieving Long-Term Careers for Women in Law and a senior partner at Fine, Kaplan and Black in Philadelphia, and will also include Joanne Epps, executive vice president and provost of Temple University in Philadelphia.