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November 14, 2019

Report examines attrition of senior female lawyers, offers best practices to retain them

CHICAGO, Nov. 14, 2019 — A first-of-its-kind report from the American Bar Association and ALM Intelligence, “Walking Out the Door: The Fact, Figures, and Future of Experienced Women Lawyers in Private Practice,” addresses why senior women are far more likely than men to leave the practice of law.

The report, authored by Roberta D. Liebenberg and Stephanie A. Scharf, shows that women surveyed were far more likely than men to report factors that blocked their “access to success,” including lacking access to business development opportunities, being perceived as less committed to career and being denied or overlooked for promotion.

“This report, anchored in research conducted in cooperation with ALM Intelligence, has the potential to serve as a basis for profound change,” ABA President Judy Perry Martinez said. “The nine recommendations serve as a roadmap to increasing a firm’s retention of experienced women lawyers. Women lawyers stay where women lawyers know that the culture, policies and practices drive success and career satisfaction.” 

This important study sought to answer three related questions:

  • What are the everyday experiences that contribute to the success of women and men in big firm practice?
  • Why do experienced women stay in large firms and why do they leave?
  •  What are law firms doing to advance women into the top echelons of leadership, what works and where is innovation needed?

An outgrowth of the ABA Presidential Initiative on Achieving Long-Term Careers for Women in Law, the study includes input from more than 1,200 big firm lawyers who have been in practice for at least 15 years.

Male and female lawyers reported similar levels of job satisfaction regarding the intellectual challenge of their practice areas and the work they perform. But they had dissimilar levels of satisfaction regarding the recognition they receive for their work, the methods by which compensation is determined, their opportunities for advancement, the commitment to workplace gender diversity and the leadership diversity of their firm.

Among the top reasons female lawyers gave for leaving the practice of law included: caretaking commitments, the level of stress at work, the emphasis on marketing or originating business and number of billable hours.

The research showed that although firm leaders and male partners believe their firms do well in advancing experienced women, those women disagree:

  • 82% of managing partners agreed that their firms were “active advocates of gender diversity,” and 91% of experienced men agreed, compared to just 62% of women.
  • 84% of managing partners agreed that their firms have succeeded in promoting women into leadership, and 75% of experienced men agreed whereas just 55% of women agreed.
  • 74% of managing partners said their firms have successfully retained experienced women, and 64% of experienced men agreed, while just 47% of women agreed.

“Walking Out the Door” provides a number of concrete recommendations for law firms to keep senior women, including:

  • Develop a strategy, set targets and establish a timeline for what the firm wants to achieve
  • Take a hard look at the data, including gender metrics and statistics, to measure and track the status of key factors over time
  • Take steps to ensure there is a critical mass of female partners on key firm committees
  • Assess the impact of firm policies and practices on female lawyers
  • Increase lateral hiring of female partners
  • Provide resources to relieve pressures from family obligations that women more often face than their male colleagues.

“Among the many illuminating findings found within the data of this report is the stark difference between the perception of both managing and male partners and the reality of female equity partners,” said Patrick Fuller, vice president of ALM Intelligence. “As such, the recommendations set forth in this paper provide an initial blueprint for substantive change, which will escalate in importance as the measurement of diversity-related metrics by buyers of legal services rapidly increases.”

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