A new report explores why women lawyers remain underrepresented in the law firm partnership ranks.
"The study found that over 50 percent of women who leave law firm practice continue to work as lawyers, most as in-house counsel, others in nonprofits or the public sector. Only 22 percent who had left private practice were not employed.”
– Christine Baker
Indeed, what’s a girl to do? Anyone without a preschool daughter might miss the question’s allusion to Fancy Nancy, a book by Jane O’Connor. The book’s title character tries to teach her family—who are all deplorably plain—what “fancy” is and why it’s okay when she wears lace-trimmed socks to play soccer. My 2-year-old daughter loves reading about Nancy’s efforts but doesn’t quite get how it feels to be different and the challenges it creates. I get it, though, as one of the relatively few women partners at a large U.S. law firm. But I’m not sure how to explain to my daughter why women are a minority in the upper ranks of mommy’s chosen career.
Why women leave private practice
In a recent study, the MIT Workplace Center measured the number of women in leadership at Massachusetts law firms and attempted to determine why they remain underrepresented among law firm partners in general. On May 2, the Equality Commission released a report summarizing the study, Women Lawyers and Obstacles to Leadership. The report found that although women and men have graduated from law school and entered law firms in virtually equal numbers for more than 15 years, women still comprise only 17 percent of firm partners.
This statistic confirms the results of similar studies. But the MIT study went a step beyond the usual statistical analysis to determine why the discrepancies exist, by tracking the movement of individual lawyers in and out of firms over time (2001-2005) and gathering data on the reasons for moves. The report compares and contrasts the career trajectories of women and men at different stages with reference to factors such as whether the lawyer is married and has children. It concludes: “Women leave the partnership track mainly due to the difficulty of combining law firm work and caring for children in a system that requires long hours under high pressure with little or inconsistent support for flexible work arrangements.”
Some commentators have suggested that the discrepancy exists because women “opt out.” The study does not support this. Instead, it found that over 50 percent of women who leave law firm practice continue to work as lawyers—most as in-house counsel, others in nonprofits or the public sector. Only 22 percent who had left private practice were not employed.
Among the report’s more striking findings were ones dealing with women who have reached the supposed pinnacle of equity partnership. For example, women equity partners are less likely to have children yet are still far more likely to leave the partnership than men. Among partners without children, 15 percent of women leave their partnerships compared to 1 percent of men. For partners with children, a whopping 21 percent of women leave compared to 1 percent of men.
According to the report, no matter what stage women are at when they leave firm practice (be they associates, junior partners or equity partners), the most cited reason for leaving is “difficulty integrating work and family/personal life.” The next two most common reasons are “long work hours” and “workload pressures” followed by “poor promotion opportunities” and an “unsupportive work environment.”
The rainmaking factor
The report does not address compensation or business development discrepancies. But firms have traditionally relied on “rainmaking” abilities to determine compensation—and to justify higher pay for men. The women who have succeeded at law firms, and even moved into firm management, have most often done so by becoming known as rainmakers. It’s true—the ability to bring in business plays a large part in a lawyer’s ability to advance in private practice. Developing rainmaking skills also gives lawyers flexibility and greater control over their own destinies. Having a book of business gives lawyers power within their firms and, assuming it is portable, the ability to change firms if unsatisfied.
Unfortunately, many women are intimidated or overwhelmed by the prospect because they picture business development as cold calls and sales pitches akin to those made by the proverbial used car salesman. And few of us feel comfortable with that. But that’s not really the best way to develop business. To the contrary, the best rainmakers are people who can and do develop and nurture relationships. In fact, many women are innately good at developing and nurturing relationships. They just need to learn to apply that skill to developing business.