What Law Firms Can Do to Stop the Exodus of Women

  • Linda Robertson

Women began to enter the legal profession in larger numbers in the early 1970’s. Twenty years later, female students accounted for roughly half of law school students across the country. And while this was reason to believe that the legal profession would soon start to become more inclusive of women, something changed and the reality in the legal profession amounted to a very different thing.

The number of women practicing law has increased by about one per cent annually, and today women account for about one third of the legal profession. Why the discrepancy, then, between high law school enrolment figures and comparatively low post-graduation employment figures? Studies show, in fact that, on average, women have left the profession at double the rate of men.

Women have arrived in the practice of law, but it seems they’re not staying.

Why women leave

Women leave the profession for three main reasons:

  • Discrimination still exists in how women are treated and offered work.
  • Women still carry a heavier load of childcare and domestic duties than their husbands. Women are less likely to have stay-at-home spouses to support them in full-time work.
  • Women are less likely than men to identify themselves solely by the title on their business cards. They wish to have other interests in their lives (even when they don’t have children).

For many women, discrimination and a bleak career outlook remain the major barriers to a long and productive career in law. While there is little resistance to women obtaining positions in law firms, there remains some resistance to women becoming partners. And when they do finally attain the rank of partner, few women are invited to sit on the powerful committees like the executive or compensation committees. Fewer women, still, find the time and energy to balance an executive position in a law firm with the challenges of a family life and a life outside of the practice. As a result, women tend to be over-represented in government and in-house legal positions, primarily due to their desire to have more reasonable work hours.

Law remains a profession modeled on a male culture. The networking, client development, style of practice, hierarchical structure of firms, and competitiveness require that anyone joining the profession must practice law as it has always been practiced.

What law firms can do to stop the exodus

In the next decade, as the baby boomers begin to retire en masse, the business community faces a real problem of recruiting talent. Professionals and staff will be harder to find and will demand more from their employers than just high wages, they will increasingly demand incentives to promote their lives outside of the office, notably an improved balance between their working and private lives. And this phenomenon won’t be limited to women. Increasingly, men report that they are unhappy in the practice of law.

The legal community needs to recognize that it is dealing with an issue that affects the entire profession and not just one that is limited to women.

Law practices need to address the issue of work-life balance directly with the legal professionals and to act on the findings. Ask all the lawyers in your firm, especially women, what it’s like to practice law in your firm. What are the issues holding them back? How could the firm provide better support to keep them with the firm?

Be prepared to hear some unsettling news, especially about the behaviour of individual lawyers (who may be powerful partners). Decide beforehand how you’re going to handle unwelcome news. If it will be too controversial – then reconsider doing the survey.

Know that many women leave because of how they are treated by other lawyers and they rarely let the partners know the real reason they are leaving. They don’t want to jeopardize their employment opportunities at other firms or get a reputation for being a “trouble-maker” or not being able to handle the pressures of professional life.

Flexible work arrangements are needed. This is the single biggest work issue for many women lawyers and increasingly for male lawyers. There is a lot of information on the Web about such work arrangements and cost effectiveness.

Many lawyers will accept less pay for fewer hours provided the formula is fair. Practice groups and teams handling the same client can allow more flexibility in hours spent in the office.

Mentoring programs are needed for both male and female associates. Law firms traditionally spend little time developing their associates in the practice of law or marketing. Many mentoring programs fail due to lack of partner support or the wrong mentors being matched with the wrong protégés. Ask your associates how existing mentoring programs can be improved. Make a commitment to sustaining the improved program.

Recognize that a lot of business networking and marketing is still done around male activities like golf or belonging to the right clubs. Women often need support from their firms on building clients. Women have particular strength on retaining clients, as they are often good at building relationships.