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

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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