Why women leave law firms, and when they’ll return

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Visiting my alma mater Queen’s Law School recently, I paused, as I often do, before the framed graduation picture of the Class of 1973. It was startling for this member of the Class of 1993 when I saw it 20 years ago, and it’s downright unbelievable seeing it 40 years on in 2013. Among the Law ’73 grads, you will find exactly one — repeat: one — woman (Mary Jane Mossman, who went on to become an award-winning professor and Associate Dean of Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto).

By the time I enrolled in law school in 1990, women made up about half of all law school classes and were said to constitute as much as 60% of the incoming classes at some faculties. So the Class of ’73, as shocking as it was, seemed like a relic of a distant past. But it’s worth remembering just how male-dominated the legal profession has always been. Check out these figures compiled by the ABA: as recently as 1980, men outnumbered women in the US legal profession by a staggering 92%-8%. Roughly ten years later, the breakdown was 80%-20%, and ten years after that, 73%-27%. (In 2010, the most recent year available, the split in Canada was 68%-32%.) It seemed like a natural progression was underway towards a more balanced profession.

But by 2005, the US split was still only 70%-30%, and several indicators suggest that’s as good as it’s going to get: women and minority hiring has backtracked at large law firms since the financial crisis, and The Careerist points out that of the ten top-ranked US law schools, only one has more women enrolled than men. The issue is especially acute in the private bar: women enter law firms, but they don’t stay there for long, moving to sole practices, into in-house positions, into the public sector, or out of active legal careers altogether.

One statistic nicely sums up the current state of affairs: women constitute just 15% of equity partners at AmLaw 200 firms. Take a moment to let that one sink in. (For more depressing reading, click the link to get a detailed account of ongoing compensation gaps between women and men at these firms.) The profession, to its credit, has been trying for the last 20+ years to address this problem, creating commissions, task forces and programs of all kinds to support women in private practice. Whatever impact these efforts have had, they have shown little evidence of successfully enabling more equitable status for women in law firms.

I’m now coming to conclude that this is because all these efforts, well-intentioned as they might be, are looking at the situation the wrong way. We’ve been assuming that the lower numbers of women in law firms is a problem that needs rectifying. But what if we stop looking at women’s legal career choices as a failure that needs fixing, a failure to fit the traditional standards of success? What if, instead, we start looking at this trend as evidence of women’s eminently sensible and illuminating response to the state of law practice?

Here’s my theory: women aren’t leaving law firms at an abnormal rate. They’re leaving law firms at a perfectly rational and normal rate. It’s men who are staying in law firms at an abnormal rate. Women aren’t the faulty outliers; men are.

When you look at the situation that way, a lot of things start to make sense. Women who enter law firms quickly and accurately diagnose that these are amateurish organizations that employ archaic workflow systems, inept pricing mechanisms, skewed compensation structures, and largely ineffective management, not to mention a whole lotta personal dysfunction. The typical contemporary law firm is nobody’s idea of a good business model, a satisfying workplace, or a solid bet for long-term future success. It shouldn’t surprise us that women abandon this model in droves. The question we ought to be asking ourselves is, why are men sticking with it in greater numbers than should rationally be expected?

Certainly, there are any number of advantages presented to men by the typical law firm model — we created it in our own image, after all. Head and shoulders above all these benefits is the time- and effort-based pricing and reward system. Men continue to shoulder much less of the burden of family and household care than women do, giving them more time to devote to the firm. And since time is the currency of law firm financial success and the measure of law firm dedication, it’s no wonder that men find the environment attractive and rewarding in that regard. The mystery is why we put up with all the other unpleasant, unresponsive and dehumanizing aspects of the model. Why do we accept and endorse a system that delivers exactly one benefit to us (revenue) at the cost of so many other disadvantages to us, to our erstwhile female colleagues, and especially, to our clients?

These contentions underlie my larger thesis: in the medium- to long-term, women will flood into law firms and into the private practice of law generally, but not because the profession or firms themselves have made various “accommodations” (a dangerous and ultimately demeaning word) to the standard model for women. It will be because that model itself will sink entirely beneath the waves of change, replaced by new approaches that more closely resemble modern business practices. My impression is that women are already a growing and increasingly potent force in modern solo practices, where they can make their own rules. The “solo” ethic will, as time goes on, start to spread to larger legal enterprises.

Inevitably, and especially with the advent of “non-lawyer” participation in the market, law firms will lose their 19th-century trappings of time-based pricing and harshly individualistic compensation systems. They will cease to be clubs of privilege and start to be engines of value and productivity. And very shortly afterwards, not by coincidence, they will start to benefit from an influx of the amazing female talent they have been rejecting for decades. Five years ago, I wrote about a “Moneyball” approach to building law firms that recognized and capitalized on the legal market’s ridiculous undervaluation of women: our destination is a market in which that undervaluation comes to an end.

This will not happen overnight; but the current law firm model is inarguably unsustainable, and when it finally falls away, real shifts in the law firm gender mix should be one of the primary unlooked-for benefits. We can best prepare ourselves for that outcome by hastening the fall of the old model — and by considering the distinct possibility that women, far from constituting a “problem” to be “fixed,” have actually been pointing the profession in the right direction all this time.

Jordan Furlong delivers dynamic and thought-provoking presentations to law firms and legal organizations throughout North America on how to survive and profit from the extraordinary changes underway in the legal services marketplace. He is a partner with Edge International and a senior consultant with Stem Legal Web Enterprises.             
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18 Responses to “Why women leave law firms, and when they’ll return”

  1. Merrilyn Astin Tarlton

    Jordan, in the 90′s I was frequently asked to speak to groups of women lawyers. I blush, now, thinking of some of those discussions. I saw then what you see here, but naively urged women to “stay in” because they were the ones who could ultimately bring reason and common sense to a broken profession. While there are some instances where perceptive law firm leaders took risks to bring women into the decision-making circle and extraordinary things subsequently happened, they are few and far between–and the personal toll on those women was great. The happy successes I have seen occurred when women lawyers abandoned the fraternal order and created their own firms and their own means of serving clients and solving their problems. These women are choosing to innovate from the ground up instead of continuing to bang their heads against the walls of those “clubs of privilege.” I hope you are right that we will eventually see an “influx of the amazing female talent they have been rejecting for decades” but suspect it is more likely that many, many firms will crumble in the face of fierce innovation and a changing marketplace before taking the steps to adapt in a way that makes sense and welcomes women.

  2. Alison Monahan

    This is such an interesting take on the topic. I’ve been thinking about bits and pieces of what you’re saying for a while (see, e.g., this podcast with Comedians at Law where they asked about the problem of retaining women in BigLaw, and my non-scripted reaction was something like, “I’m sure I’ll get flack for this but I really wonder why anyone stays in these conditions. It’s hard for me to work up too much angst about women leaving.”) but hadn’t put it all together in this way.

    It makes a lot of sense, and it will be very interesting to see what happens going forward.

  3. Terese B. Deboo

    To me, the answer is simple: men still control the large companies, which are the source of business, and men still prefer to award their business to men, not women.

  4. Patrick Lamb

    Excellent piece, Jordan. I have long believed that women who have left the law are a phenomenal resource and a great way for smaller firms to gain extraordinary talent, since smaller firms can provide greater flexibility to accommodate women as they step back from (but not out of) or ease back into the workforce or adjust their participation in it. And there will be some women who simply choose not to tolerate the BS at large firms. Let’s face it, while things are changing away from the “the men’s club.” change happens slowly. Too slowly for many. But having made significant effort to link up with women who want to change the profession or enjoy it more and having been unsuccessful in that effort, I can only ask that if you get queries from women who litigate, you share our number! Women can make a dent in the universe and we are most interested in those who want to try.

  5. Tamsen Horton

    Well said. It excites me that women have figured out ways to use their law degrees and are not willing to settle for the expectations or treatment in the historic law firm model. Thank you for eloquently and positively laying out how women are currently moving law in a new direction. The world needs attorneys and the law to really partner with each other, find workable, efficient, and sustainable solutions to everyday issues.

    Personally I created my law business as a solution to putting my intellect and business skills to help others and myself. I love what I do and I am the decision maker. When I see something that is working I can grow it even better, and when I see something that’s not working I change it.

    Thank you for your time in writing this article!

  6. Carolyn Elefant

    Great post Jordan – I completely agree. Years back, I attended a Ms. JD conference with Susan Cartier Liebel and Lisa Solomon. The conference was focused on ways to encourage law firms to retain women, etc…whereas our mutual perspective was that rather than beg firms to keep women on, women lawyers should take ownership of their assets and drive their destiny. I argued there – and in my post – that at a time (even back in 2007) when people were questioning the viability of big law, women shouldn’t be clinging to an old system but instead inventing a new one – http://myshingle.com/2007/04/articles/biglaw-practice-and-issues/should-we-rescue-biglaw-or-run-from-it/ Back at that conference, we were all pretty much shouted down – but I wonder now what has happened to those who didn’t take heed. After all, when the big cuts came in 2008, part timers (women) were the first to go.

  7. Vickie Pynchon

    As we’ve discussed, Jordon, I’ll be writing about this at Forbes but wanted to leave a comment here to raise the issue at your “place” as well as at mine.

    So long as significant political power is located within the AmLaw100, we women do ourselves a disservice by “voting with out feet” against an institution that can be transformed just as so many institutions before it were (journalism, the skilled trades, the military, college sports and the like).

    First, there are many good reasons to stay in BigLaw despite its drawbacks. I only know BigLaw through litigation practice (a quarter century) so that’s what I’ll address. The opportunity in an AmLaw200 law firm to make public policy in commerce through the courts is substantial. I cannot, as a solo practitioner, handle a half billion dollar to billion dollar dispute between, say, Nokia and Qualcomm, that will influence the direction of intellectual property law forever. There is also the opportunity to accrete personal and economic power to ourselves, without which we cannot fund the enterprises that that promote the well-being of women and girls, as well as other initiatives that women may be more concerned about than many men because we are thinking more about the welfare of our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren than about our immediate self-satisfaction and aggrandizement.

    Are there other ways to wield this type of influence and gain this type of power? Of course there are. But why would women simply cede this avenue of power to men because RIGHT NOW the workplace is hostile to us?

    Second, the programs you cite (women’s initiatives, additional training, etc.) have failed to achieve what they purportedly set out to achieve because they are flawed, not because women are simply not a comfortable fit for BigLaw now or in the future. Those law firms with the most oft-used flextime programs, for instance, have the lowest percentage of women equity partners in the AmLaw. This is not because women don’t work efficiently within flex-time programs, but because they might as well be painting a target on their back saying “working mother” when they do so. There’s a 16% motherhood penalty in the workplace, period, not simply in BigLaw. This is due to bias, not to women’s inability to bill time the way men do. Remember, time billing is a subjective, not an objective, means of measuring value and women have been proven to work 22% longer and 10% faster before we judge OURSELVES as being deserving of the same pay as men. Curious how close that is to the wage gap, right? Women chronically underbill their time and men chronically overbill it. How do I know? I spent at least two decades reviewing the bills of my male and female associate attorneys. I never had to tell a man to bill all his time. I had to tell every woman who ever worked for me to bill all her time. She didn’t do so because she “felt” she took too long to accomplish the task or “felt” that some of the work she did she shouldn’t have had to do because it was “background” work rather than work laser-directed at the precise issue she was asked to research or precise task she was asked to perform. The working mothers who worked for me were ALWAYS more efficient users of their time than the men AND the women who didn’t have children. The problem isn’t the productivity of women. It’s at least partially women’s enculturation, which includes a big slug of “you’re not good enough.”

    There’s much, much more and I recommend to all your readers Lauren Stiller Rikleen’s masterful deconstruction of bias in the workplace and her prescription for change (which has NOT be attempted) – Ending the Gauntlet – Removing Barriers to Women’s Success in the Law – http://www.amazon.com/Ending-Gauntlet-Removing-Barriers-Success/dp/0314960376

    I can’t help but add, however, that women in BigLaw are not “clinging” to it. They are making changes, large and small, every working hour of every working day, to make their workplace not simply more woman friendly, but more effective and efficient. I know it is not your intention to discount their efforts, but this piece, unfortunately, perpetuates the very stereotypes that those women inside BigLaw have been coping with, fighting, altering and transforming for the last 20 years. If you’re going to criticize the way in which women intersect with one of the most powerful institutions on the face of the planet, I’d ask you not to play into the stereotype that women cannot succeed there. They can and do under the most hostile of circumstances. And in so doing, they often “leave” to do even greater work, like, say, Michelle Obama whose post-FLOTUS career is going to blow the socks off the planet and she met Barack at BigLaw where so much power resides.

  8. Rob Millard

    Isn’t it amazing how often looking at an issue from the converse perspective snaps it into focus? A truly inspired article, Jordan, which I am copying on with great delight to the ladies that I know who practice law (or, in most cases, who used to.) Well deserving of an article in Forbes and I look forward to reading what Vickie Pynchon writes.

  9. Lisa Solomon

    Today, NYU’s Law Women student group is holding a symposium called Breaking the Glass Ceiling: Exploring the Continued Existence of Gender Bias in the Legal Profession and Understanding How it Can Change (http://www.law.nyu.edu/studentorganizations/lawwomen/Events/symposium/index.htm). The panelists include Lauren Stiller Rikleen and Deborah Epstein Henry, among others. I don’t know whether the symposium is being recorded. However, for anyone interested in further reading on the subject, the CLE materials for the symposium are available at the above link.

  10. Linda Robertson

    Jordan – another great article especially the link to the stats on the retention of women lawyers in Canada, the resource list of women lawyer groups and the update on Justicia in Ontario. I have long thought that women don’t leave the law – they leave law firms. Women love the law and make excellent lawyers. They just aren’t willing to work in environments where the partnership model can pit lawyers against each other in a way that promotes competition over who can bill the most and undervalues other more collaborative practices found in many corporate settings.

    Just as feminism benefits men as well as women, the changes that many women want to see in how law firms are structured will benefit men as well.

  11. Ann Lee Gibson

    Good grief, Jordan. For starters, all women lawyers don’t need or want the same kind of legal practice, and all of them (most of them?) don’t want to run a solo legal practice, which also has constraints that pinch. Second, many women have not left BigLaw, nor do they plan to leave. Third, as joyfully as you and scores of other consultants are slathering at the thought of BigLaw going belly-up, it’s not going to do so. Fourth, the legal industry has been changing for some time, and law firms (of all sizes and ilks) have adapted or died; that evolution continues. Fifth, women don’t have some girls-only, Gaya third eye that lets them see what is evil about the structure and management of law firms, which men are blind to; that’s ridiculous. And finally, to the commenter Terese — your belief that only men hand out big corporate legal work to only other men is very far from my own observations. I’ll leave it at that.

  12. Lauren Stiller Rikleen

    I just came across this exchange while doing research for a document I am drafting as a member of the ABA Presidential Task Force on Gender Equity, and in particular, our work with respect to the gender gap in compensation. Vickie, thank you for the kind words about my book, and for nailing why large law firms matter (and, therefore, the ability to succeed in that environment matters). In Ending the Gauntlet, I talk about the importance of these institutions to so many aspects of our society. I wrote then and continue to believe that structural changes can and must be made for the long-term sustainability of the large law firm — and to create an environment where women can succeed.

    Jordan, I appreciate the basic premise in all of your writings – the current business model (stating it kindly) is not at all sustainable. Changes canbe made, however, that can make a tremendous difference. The question is whether firms will listen. I hope that the ABA Task Force will help move this discussion forward.

    The NYU Symposium was recorded and is expected to be up on their web site within a week. One issue I tried to stress in my sessions is that women need to talk more about their own power – both personal and collective – to make a difference. Women’s Initiatives can and should be used far more effectively as a place from which to advocate for internal changes. And they certainly are an appropriate vehicle to initiate firm-wide engagement in the collection of metrics that demonstrate the many areas in which implicit bias results in systemic barriers to inclusion for women and other non-majority groups. Of course, training in implicit bias is critical to help those who are in positions where they are evaluating others understand how our unconscious mind operates and impacts the judgments we are making.

    Men, too, must become engaged in these discussions. As I labor away on my book on Millennials in the workplace, I have great optimism that young men will be far more involved in workplace issues generally.

    Finally, I look forward to the day when major consulting firms are including these issues front and center in the work they do for BigLaw.

  13. Marney Reid

    OMG YES!!!!!! Finally an article that doesn’t put down a TON of depressing quotes about “women leaving” high power careers and industries that are NOT designed to be conducive to being a present wife, mother, friend, and have a social life. FINALLY someone writes about applauding these people for starting their own practices or creating their own ventures to define their OWN version of success. I applaud you for writing this!!!!!

  14. Joe Milstone

    That’s a great post, Jordan. As someone else said, it’s not really about men and women so much as it is that the traditional model is broken and has now been more widely exposed than it ever has. Women tend to be more at the end of their rope than men so they will more willingly (and perceptively) jump into and lead the new world quicker. In our case four of our first five lawyers were women, but now that they have helped prove out our model out so effectively, we now get superior talent evenly across both sexes and for all the same good reasons.

  15. Karen Dunn Skinner

    Excellent article, Jordan. A refreshing take on the normally dire commentary about women in law. Although I know many women (including myself) who’ve forged different types of careers with their law degrees, I also know many who are “sticking it out” in large law firms. As the current business model of the large firm evolves, I hope they will be the drivers pushing the profession to change from within. I hope…but I’m not always hopeful.

  16. Sherry Bevan

    Excellent article. Very thought-provoking and a great way to look at women in law from a different angle.

  17. Laur Laur

    “”" Women who enter law firms quickly and accurately diagnose that these are amateurish organizations that employ archaic workflow systems, inept pricing mechanisms, skewed compensation structures, and largely ineffective management, not to mention a whole lotta personal dysfunction.”"”

    Dear friends,
    This is an hypothesis.
    I do agree that women lawyers are extremely intelligent and adaptable therefore your statement has no value!
    Let’s say women will found these male ruled organisations as archaic, non-profitable.
    Well. they have 3 options:
    - stay, fight, change, win
    - stay for a while, learn, leave
    - after leave above, create a parallel creative, profitable company
    As per your post, women lawyers are not be found in either of these 3 categories.
    Or at least most of them (70%)
    They are not winning, they are not creating new companies, they are just missing, just leaving, abandoning.

    So, before jumping against male ruled companies and blaming them for oppressing women you must think of why such creative, intelligent women would abandon their profession and not create a new, competent firm.

    If you decide like Europe does, to impose a quota…isn’t that true that those men replaced by women will create their own companies and start all over again as they did before?

    And then isn’t that true that as soon as they would do it a new wave of intelligent, creative women will come and ask to be accepted into their companies and to change those companies?

    So on, so on?

    Why isn’t this situation reversed?
    Why not men to follow women in their feminine creative and profitable companies?

    I think you must think why intelligent, creative women can’t create their own companies!!!
    Then restart your reasoning.

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