Why women leave the profession

December 2017 | First Focus

In an effort to understand why women seem to leave the legal profession at what should be the height of their careers, more than 160 lawyers gathered at Harvard Law School in November to attend the ABA National Summit on Achieving Long-Term Careers for Women in Law.

Statistics show that although women enter the profession in equal numbers to men, a process of attrition occurs so that they make up just 23 percent of partners and 19 percent of equity partners.

"Three reasons women leave the law:

  • Work/life balance
  • Unconscious bias
  • Pay gap"

The issue is a signature initiative of ABA President Hilarie Bass, and is co-chaired by Roberta D. Liebenberg, senior partner, Fine, Kaplan & Black in Philadelphia and past chair of the ABA Commission on Women; and Stephanie Scharf, partner, Scharf Banks Marmor LLC in Chicago and chair, ABA Commission on Women.

Why women leave the law

Documentarian Sharon Rowen, a lawyer from Atlanta, kicked off the first day by showing clips from Balancing the Scales, a film about women lawyers she spent more than two decades making. She said her research showed three reasons women leave the practice of law:

  • work/life balance,
  • unconscious bias, and
  • pay gap.

Iris Bohnet, professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School, and a panelist on the first plenary session on Why Experienced Women Lawyers Leave and Why We Should Care, said that for women, “bias starts in year one.”

She said some women suffer from “success fatigue,” and leave because of a work culture that forces them to minimize important parts of their lives. They ask themselves, “Can I bring my whole self to work?” and “Is this a place where I can thrive?”

Panelist Christina Tchen, partner at Buckley Sandler LLP in Chicago and former assistant to the president and chief of staff to First Lady Michelle Obama and former executive director of the White House Council on Women and Girls, pointed to secrecy about compensation as part of the problem and advocated for best practices in salary transparency.

"Women will stay where they feel successful."

Former ABA President Paulette Brown, a partner at Locke Lord LLP in Morristown, N.J., said that in law firms, “women of color…become invisible” due to inherent bias. She told a story of how one of her firm’s litigators once needed an attorney to help on a case and went through all the men, then all the women, “then me,” as an example of how difficult it can be for women of color to get important work experience at firms.

Tchen called legal work places “antiquated,” which she said was reflected in the drop in law school applications. She said the profession needs to change to reflect today’s world, as well as the values and work habits of millennials so it doesn’t “go down.” Firms need to set a new tone and take advantage of technology that can make work more flexible, she said.

At Morgan Lewis, Jami Wintz McKeon said, they have a remote working program where lawyers can work at home up to two days a week. They ran a beta test first and found people were more productive. The response has been that people say, “This will keep me [working] here longer,” she said.

“Women will stay where they feel successful,” she said.

Denise Keane, former general counsel at Altria Group Inc., agreed, adding, “People will stay where they feel like they’re becoming more marketable.”

Fixing the problem

During the second plenary session on Fixing the Problem: What Works, Caren Ulrich Stacy, CEO of Diversity Lab and vice president of partnerships and policy at U.S. National Committee for UN Women in San Francisco, explained the Mansfield Rule (named for Arabella Mansfield, the first woman admitted to practice law in the United States). It came about during a Women in Law Hackathon in 2016 and is modeled after the Rooney Rule, which was instituted in 2003 and stipulates that for every NFL head coach opening at least one diverse coach must be interviewed, or the team owner risks a $200,000 fine.

The Mansfield Rule states that law firms consider at least 30 percent of the candidate pool for promotions, senior-level hiring and leadership positions women lawyers and attorneys of color. Forty-four law firms are piloting the rule, and Stacy said that it prompted them to think about their pipeline of women and diverse lawyers. Firms and companies that successfully pilot the program get “certified” in the Mansfield Rule.

At Northrop Grumman, said corporate vice president and general counsel Sheila Cheston, they require a diverse pool of candidates for upper-level positions, and they keep pushing the requirement down to lower-level positions. She said doing so requires “intentional behavior among the leadership.”

Michele Coleman Mayes, vice president, general counsel and secretary for the New York Public Library, said diversity does not happen naturally but it does have to happen throughout all levels.

Guy Halgren, chairman of the executive committee at Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton LLP in San Diego, conceded that at his firm a lawyer needs to develop business in order to become an equity partner. Women tend to have fewer billable hours because they volunteer more for nonbillable projects, and that they “need to be more selfish.”

Stacy said women leave firms to have children or for other reasons, but often want to come back. She pitched some women with impressive resumes who had taken time off to BigLaw firms, but couldn’t get them interviews. So she set up an on-ramp hire pilot program, which asked several large firms if they would hire one woman who had taken years off for a year, with no guarantee after that. There was a 67 percent success rate with the tryouts, and now more firms have signed on to try it.

Halgren said it was important to keep in mind numbers and not just percentages of experienced women lawyers. Because of artificial intelligence, he said, in the future “we will need fewer lawyers,” but the push for diversity will remain.

Next steps

According to Liebenberg and Scharf, the initiative now turns to three lines of research:

  • The American Bar Foundation is conducting a statistical study of long-term career trajectories of women lawyers.

  • The ABA and ALM Intelligence will conduct a systematic survey to understand the perspectives and solutions that firms and individuals within firms provide for achieving long-term careers for women in law.

  • About 25 focus groups will be held in New York City, Washington, D.C., Miami, Chicago, San Francisco (and possibly Houston) late in the first quarter of 2018. They will consist of women still practicing law after 20 or more years as well as women who dropped out of practicing law after 20 or more years. Women interested in participating in a focus group can email the American Bar Foundation’s Caroline Tipler at ctipler@abfn.org. The co-chairs encourage women to both participate and also to reach out to their networks, particularly the women they know who have left the profession after 20-25 years for whatever reason – “the hardest ones to reach,” they said.

The co-chairs are also working to raise funds to study the long-term careers of women lawyers of color.

The research, the results of which will be presented at a second summit in late June, will have a lot of “statistical rigor” and take “systematic approaches to sampling,” said Scharf, “so that conclusions represent groups of women who remain in the legal profession and those who leave.”

“This is a first-ever look at the career paths of women lawyers who should be in their prime of practicing law and may or may not be,” she said. “Nobody else has developed data on long-term career trajectories for men and women. We just don’t have those data.”

Liebenberg hopes the research will reveal clues about structural changes that are needed. “Are we seeing any patterns where some companies and law firms are doing better than others in retaining their more-experienced women lawyers, and why?”

“This is not about changing the women. It’s about changing the places where they work so those places can retain and advance many more women than they currently are,” she said.

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