CHICAGO, May 3, 2021 — A new report from the American Bar Association, “In Their Own Words: Experienced Women Lawyers Explain Why They Are Leaving Their Law Firms and the Profession,” looks at the factors that influence the decisions by experienced women lawyers to remain in practice, move to a different job within the law (including in-house counsel) or step out of the profession altogether after 15 or more years of practice.
The report, authored by Joyce Sterling, a professor at the Sturm College of Law in Denver who has researched the problems facing women in their legal careers for more than 30 years, and Linda Chanow, a nonprofit executive who has worked to advance women in the profession for more than two decades, addresses three questions:
- What do women lawyers like about the practice of law?
- What negative factors or experiences do women identify as forces that make them consider leaving the practice of law?
- What changes can be made to encourage women to stay in law practice?
In Their Own Words, together with the ABA Initiative on Achieving Long-Term Careers for Women in Law’s first two reports — Walking Out the Door, focusing on the long-term experiences of women in the nation’s 500 largest firms, and Left Out and Left Behind, a national study of experienced women of color — represents a large set of new data about the factors that advance or impede long-term careers for women lawyers.
This new research sheds more light on the initiative’s previous finding of “death by a thousand cuts” in which a combination of factors, and not one single factor alone, impacts experienced women’s decisions to leave their firms. The women in the study said it was the pervasive nature of those factors and the cumulative impact that drove them to leave their firms or law practice entirely. The personal stories in this report show how women lawyers experience the structural and cultural biases that work against achieving long-term careers, such as in systems for awarding credit for business development and the hyper-competitive culture of many firms.
Twelve focus groups in six cities and 12 individual interviews yielded revealing comments, such as:
“I would say without exception, every lawyer, female lawyer that I’ve spoken to that I’m friends with, that I’m close enough to talk to, has experienced some form of discrimination.”
“You give me the hardest problems to solve, but you tell me I am less important with the compensation you give me.”
“I don’t feel like I have anyone in a position of power who can personally relate to me.”
“[T]he lack of opportunity, I think, for [women of color] is really blatant.”
“[T]he power dynamic is very real. . . [P]eople are very uncomfortable when women lean into their power.”
“This report highlights the ongoing systemic barriers women still face in the legal profession,” ABA President Patricia Lee Refo said. “These women’s personal stories are eye-opening, and the recommendations illustrate the changes we need to make to support and advance all women lawyers.”
Among the recommendations that law firms could implement to keep women attorneys are:
- Assess the impact of firm policies and practices on women lawyers.
- Take steps to ensure there is a critical mass of women partners on key firm committees.
- Increase lateral hiring of women partners.
- Provide resources to relieve pressures from family obligations that women more often face than their male colleagues.
- Be flexible to support changing practices.
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