Why Women are Leaving BigLaw

women leaving BigLawWhy are women leaving BigLaw? Because they’re more likely than men to be denied business development prospects, promotions and other career advancement opportunities, according to a survey from the American Bar Association (ABA) and ALM Intelligence.

The Walking Out The Door: The Facts, Figures, and Future of Experienced Women Lawyers in Private Practice study is part of an ABA initiative launched by former-President Hilarie Bass to explore why experienced women lawyers leave the legal profession. For that past several decades, women have made up roughly 45-50% of entering associate classes at large law firms. As they move into more senior roles, however, this number drops. Currently, women make up only 30% of non-equity partners and 20% of equity partners.

The survey evaluated responses from 1,262 managing partners and individual men and women who’ve practiced law for at least 15 years and are in private practice at NLJ 500 law firms. Seventy percent of respondents were women and 30% were men. Respondents were asked about what contributes to success and departures in BigLaw, and what’s being done to advance women into firm leadership.

The report is the first of the four to be published on women leaving BigLaw.

Everyday Experiences Contributing to Discontent

Women and men reported similar experiences in terms of work performed and relationships with their colleagues. However, women had different experiences in accessing opportunities for advancement and success at their firms.

When asked about their overall job satisfactions, 87% of men and 72% of women are extremely or somewhat satisfied with their job. On the flip side, 5% of men and 21% of women are somewhat or extremely dissatisfied with their job.

What factors are leading to this discrepancy? More women reported being dissatisfied with firm policies tied to compensation (38% vs. 17% of men), opportunities for advancement (33% vs. 11%) and the recognition they receive for work accomplishments (32% vs. 13%).

Moreover, women are far more likely to report negative work experiences based on gender. This includes being mistaken for a lower-level employee (82% vs. 0% of men), a lack of business development opportunities (67% vs. 10%), being less committed to her/his career (63% vs. 2%) and being denied a salary increase or bonus (54% vs. 4%). In addition, 50% of women and just 6% of men reported receiving unwanted sexual conduct at work.

Why Are Experienced Women Leaving BigLaw?

Most women and men agree that challenging/interesting work and positive relationships with their colleagues can keep women attorneys at their firms.

When it comes to leaving BigLaw, experienced women lawyers ranked caretaking commitments (60%), the level of stress at work (55%), an emphasis on marketing/generating new business (52%) and generating billable hours (51%) as the top reasons influencing a decision to depart a firm.

To demonstrate the disconnect, men gave significantly lower credence to work stress (41%) and marketing (35%) in driving women out the door.

Are Firms Fostering Women’s Careers?

Managing partners recognize the importance of recruiting and retaining women attorneys. Eighty-two percent of managing partners said diversity at senior levels leads to better decision-making. Add to that, 86% cited gender diversity as improving a firm’s reputation and responsiveness to the market.

However, while managing partners and senior male attorneys said their firms actively advocate for gender diversity (82% and 91%, respectively), far fewer women lawyers agree (62%). In fact, 25% of women said their firm doesn’t actively advocate for gender diversity, 35% said their firm doesn’t successfully promote women into equity partnership and 38% said their firm doesn’t successfully retain experienced women.

When it comes to firm policies that are attractive to women, experienced female attorneys rate working from home (78%), paid parental leave (76%), a formal part-time policy for partners (75%) and clear consistent criteria for promotion to equity partner (75%) as most important.

While 90% of managing partners said they use policies like these to increase gender parity, the consistent rate of female attrition may mean that firms need to better develop and implement strategies based on measurable results.

What’s Next?

“Simply putting policies into place and giving lip service to the goal of diversity appears to have little impact on closing the gap at mid-levels and senior levels of experience,” study authors Stephanie Scharf and Roberta Liebenberg, co-chairs of the ABA Presidential Initiative on Achieving Long-Term Careers for Women in Law, wrote in the report.

The authors suggest that all AmLaw 500 firms conduct an anonymous survey of their lawyers, like Walking Out the Door, to better understand the experiences of their attorneys. They also encourage men to be more involved in firm policy-making processes that promote gender parity, therefore invoking broader perspectives in strategic planning exercises. When these discussions are delegated to women who may not have the power to implement change, the status quo often persists.

Carolyn Elefant, owner of the Law Offices of Carolyn Elefant PLLC, argues that the growth of women-owned solo and small firm practices is often overlooked in combating gender disparity in the profession overall. According to the annual State of Women-Owned Businesses Report, commissioned by American Express, the number of women-owned businesses is growing twice as fast on average as all businesses nationwide.

Additional data on women leaving BigLaw and a comprehensive list of best practices can be found on the ABA’s website.

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