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Why senior women leave the law — and how to stem the tide

Roberta D. Liebenberg and Stephanie A. Scharf call it the “leaky pipeline” problem that’s long been discussed at law firms. That’s the one with “women representing approximately half of the new associates but then leaving their firms at higher rates than their male counterparts as they approach partnership consideration,” they say.  

The two note that the new report they co-authored for the American Bar Association and ALM Intelligence, “Walking Out the Door: The Fact, Figures, and Future of Experienced Women Lawyers in Private Practice,” “shines a spotlight on the far less frequently discussed issue of the attrition of senior women lawyers, who leave their firms when they should be in the primes of their careers.”  

“Our report is the first of its kind to provide empirical data, rather than simply anecdotal opinions and experiences, concerning the reasons why so many experienced women lawyers are voting with their feet and leaving their firms,” say the authors, who are former and current chairs of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession.

The 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 actually works and where is innovation needed?

The report includes input from more than 1,200 big firm lawyers who have been in practice for at least 15 years, and 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.

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
  • 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 the 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.

The report concludes with nine 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 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.

“The nine recommendations serve as a roadmap to increasing a firm’s retention of experienced women lawyers,” ABA President Judy Perry Martinez says. “Women lawyers stay where women lawyers know that the culture, policies and practices drive success and career satisfaction.”

Walking Out the Door, which is an outgrowth of the ABA Presidential Initiative on Achieving Long-Term Careers for Women in Law, will be followed by three additional reports over the course of the next six months, pertaining to career trajectories over 20 to 30 years after law school graduation; and two other studies that use focus group techniques for a more nuanced understanding of why women have long-term legal careers and why they leave the profession, with a heightened focus on diversity.