August 04, 2018

Law firms need to make structural changes to keep women from leaving, panel says

American Bar Association President Hilarie Bass’ initiative Achieving Long-Term Careers for Women in Law focused on the unique issues and career dynamics facing women lawyers in practice for more than 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.

A program held on Friday at the ABA Annual Meeting in Chicago, “Long-Term Careers for Women in Law: What’s Pushing Women Out and What Can We Do to Keep Them in the Profession?,” discussed the initiative’s research findings.

The initiative undertook three avenues of research:

  • The ABA and 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 at seven Chicago-area law schools, 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.


As a result of women leaving the profession, “we are having a gigantic power drain,” said 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.

Scharf, along with Andrew Neblett, president of ALM Intelligence in New York, reviewed the ALM Intelligence survey results.

They show that managing partners and women lawyers largely agree on why women are leaving firms:

  • they no longer wish to practice law
  • the level of stress at work
  • the number of billable hours
  • caretaking commitments
  • the emphasis on originating business.


But there is a disconnect between what managing partners think firms are doing about it versus what women lawyers think, as shown in the following statements:

  • Firm leaders are active advocates (82 percent of managing partners agreed vs. 61 percent of women lawyers)

  • The firm promotes women into leadership (75 percent of managing partners agreed vs. 54 percent of women lawyers)

  • Gender diversity is a priority (79 percent of managing partners agreed vs. 54 percent of women lawyers)

  • The firm promotes women into equity (71 percent of managing partners agreed vs. 47 percent of women lawyers)

  • The firm has been successful at retention (64 percent of managing partners agreed vs. 46 percent of women lawyers).


Despite being fairly equally satisfied with practicing law, men and women had very different experiences in harassment and gender bias, with men reporting very little and women reporting having received unwanted sexual contact and demeaning communications in substantial numbers.

In addition, women experience notably more gender bias at work, including being perceived as less committed to her career, being denied a salary increase or bonus, feeling treated like a token and experiencing a lack of access to sponsors.

The gender realities for experienced lawyers are that women are responsible for the bulk of child care, laundry, grocery shopping, cooking, etc., which Scharf described as “social constraints that have a much larger impact on women.”

Women like the challenge of working in law firms, said Joyce Sterling, emeritus professor of legal ethics and the legal profession at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, but not how decisions are made. Women express more satisfaction at having become a lawyer than men, but lose interest in it over not being paid equally and not getting enough credit for their work.

So, where do we go from here?

“Just having the data is critical,” said moderator 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.

If women keep leaving law firms, they won’t get past the 20-percent equity partner level, and “we want in our lifetime to get to 50-50 parity,” she said.

Many factors that go into satisfaction at work and they are within the ability of firms to control, Scharf said.

Neblett agreed, and said structural changes should include more women on firm compensation and management committees and more clarity around compensation and recognition.

Joanne Epps, executive vice president and provost of Temple University in Philadelphia, said it is key that law students interact with organizations like the ABA’s young lawyers so that their expectations align with reality.

She added that it is important for law schools to get women to “dream big” -- that is, to dream of being managing partners.

“I think it’s really important for us to confront the question of why it’s not okay the way it is,” she said. “There are too many great minds who leaving the profession, and I think everybody needs to care about that – not just women, not just men.”

“You have a better law firm if it represents people who need legal services and brings to the question a variety of approaches and perspectives,” Epps said. “What we bring is valuable and our loss is significant,” and this data “will alert people to the crisis.”

In a spirited question-and-answer session, Scharf said that when women leave law firms, they go “everywhere,” including to government, nonprofits, small firms, the bench, business and public service.

“Law firms are late coming to metrics,” she said, but with the hard numbers of this and other studies, “change is coming.”

The commission’s final report, which will include a series of recommendations that law firms can follow to address this phenomenon, will be released in September.