How to Retain Top Female Talent, and What Women Should Look For in a Law Firm

  • October 10, 2014
  • Ann Macaulay

It’s a complaint heard at law firms across the country: “Too many of our female associates are leaving”. They often leave to work in government, corporations, non-profit organizations or educational institutions—or they leave the profession altogether.

William M. Everett, Q.C., writes in a recent Law Society of British Columbia Bencher’s Bulletin that although attrition rates for women have dropped in recent years, “there are still proportionally fewer women in practice than men. Of women lawyers called in the past 15 years, 78% are practising members and 22% non-practising. Among men called during the same period, 87% are practising members and 13% are non-practising.” He adds that, “67% of women lawyers in B.C. are in private practice, compared to 82% of men.”

And these numbers are not specific to B.C. According to the “Report on Equity and Diversity in Alberta’s Legal Profession,” released earlier this year by the Law Society of Alberta, “The number and proportion of women lawyers who are leaving the practice of law significantly exceeds the number and proportion of men lawyers who are leaving.”

For several reasons—including economic ones—it’s in a law firm’s best interests to address the attrition issue and do more to keep their associates from leaving. But some argue that many of those in charge of law firms don’t fully understand the reasons women leave and that they could do more to keep them.

When half of your talent pool is comprised of women, there’s a danger that you’re missing out on keeping some of the best and the brightest.

“In many cases (when it comes to hiring law students) the women are more successful, they have better marks, a better performance,” says Louis Bernier, national managing partner of Fasken Martineau in Montreal. “In many cases they seem to be better prepared in terms of their balance, in terms of their personality, in terms of their degree of maturity. They do a great job.” He adds that when assessing the best candidates, “in most cases you will be facing a solid majority of women. Sixty per cent would be a good average, but in some cases it’s a bigger number.”

“There’s no question that women leaving the profession is a major issue with many major firms,” says Larry Anderson, president of the Law Society of Alberta. “Some progress has been made but there’s a lot more that has to be done. We as a profession have to keep asking the difficult questions if any meaningful progress is going to be made.”

Why Women Leave

Over the past couple of decades, women have become lawyers in bigger numbers than ever. They work hard, they put in long hours and the vast majority care passionately about practising law. So why do they continue to leave law firms?

“Women are dissatisfied with the culture in law firms, the tyranny of the billable hour, and their inability to balance personal life and the kind of hours that law firms want them to work,” says Cheryl Stephens, vice-chair of the Canadian Bar Association’s National Law Practice and Technology Section.

Women in firms often face a lack of mentors and feel excluded from informal networks within law firms, which affects the amount and type of work they end up getting. “They’re cutting their losses by getting out,” says Stephens. She adds that many young associates are unable to question law firm culture and work practices. “There is no room for debate or challenge.”

“There’s a high level of unhappiness out there in the ranks,” says Jennifer Conkie, who started her own successful litigation boutique, Conkie & Company, in Vancouver 11 years ago. When she interviewed several young women from large firms for a maternity leave position in her firm, “Over and over I heard their stories of invisibility and frustration and unhappiness. I was really surprised at how unhappy these junior women lawyers seemed to be.”

Many women complain about being left out of the loop in law firm culture, including being excluded from important files and not being invited to golf games with clients. “Many women, especially young women, feel that it’s not their job to go in and reform a law firm,” says Stephens. So women end up leaving instead of trying to change the status quo.

“I was very aware of the glass ceiling at some of the firms I was at,” says Conkie. “When I was articling and walking up to court one day with a senior litigator at my firm, he gruffly told me words to the effect that I could forget about having children and being a top-notch barrister when I confessed that I wanted to be a mom someday.

“From that day forward, I felt as though my intention to practise law at a high level and have interesting clients and a widely varied litigation practice didn’t have to be at such a high price. Becoming a mother and having a child has been a hugely important part of my life. And my law practice is also very important. Finding a balance there has felt so much more possible to me because I have my own firm and can do it on my own terms.”

Sexual harassment is another issue for some women. Years ago it was often physical in nature. Now with laws as well as firm codes of conduct in place it has decreased, but it now tends to be more verbal and subtle in nature. “Sexual harassment is still pervasive,” says Anne Bhanu Chopra, equity ombudsperson at the Law Society of British Columbia. She provides confidential and neutral advice to those who have concerns about any kind of discrimination or harassment.

Chopra regularly fields complaints from young female lawyers who say they’ve been harassed, “so I know it’s a live issue. You cannot openly do it, but it still occurs. The ones who want to harass do it in the privacy of their office or in the privacy of a business trip. There is still joking about things and making things uncomfortable in the confines of a small office.” The situations she’s dealt with tend to occur mostly within the first five years of practice, when lawyers are much more vulnerable.

Chopra says there is a culture of silence about sexual harassment in law firms. “The only people who are willing to say anything or take that strong position are individuals willing to set up their own practice or leave law completely.” The rest, she says, simply put up with it.

“It’s demoralizing,” says Cheryl Stephens. “Young women are working so hard, they’re putting everything in and they may be putting their personal life and family interests aside for the time being, trying to establish a career and gain the respect and credibility they need for their career advancement. Then they get sideswiped by this.”

Stephens says most women who have been harassed tend to internalize it rather than view it as a systemic problem that should be addressed by firm management. “They assume that every other woman is managing just fine. They don’t want to be a victim—they can’t imagine that it’s going to be in their favour to be seen as a victim of sexual harassment and they don’t want it known. They don’t want to make waves because they don’t want to in effect get blacklisted. I don’t know if that happens very much but I think there is a perception amongst women that it does.”

How to Keep Women at the Firm

There are concrete, measurable things you can do to retain top female talent, including making an assessment of your own firm’s environment.

“In any organization, if you want to know what people are really thinking and feeling, you have to approach it systematically,” says Susan Black, vice-president in charge of the Canadian office of Catalyst in Toronto. Catalyst is a non-profit research and advisory organization working to advance women in business and the profession.

Since no individual can know everything that’s happening in every corner of the firm, you need an objective third party to find out the truth about what people are thinking. Ask questions, such as how many women do you hire? What’s your turnover rate of women? At what rate do women get promoted? “It’s a very basic analysis you need to do to understand where the women are,” says Black. “That gives you hard, solid numbers.”

You can then gather employee input through focus groups or surveys, which can be done internally. Find out what the perceptions are about basic issues that affect your firm’s culture, its climate, advancement opportunities, career expectations, how work and family is balanced, and whether management is inclusive or not.

Your firm should also systematically do exit interviews, preferably using a third party. You can learn a lot from listening to those who are leaving the firm, although people don’t want to burn their bridges when they leave an organization so they give a politically correct answer. “But when they’re interviewed a few months later by a third party, they may give a very different, more candid answer,” says Black. “We do hundreds of exit interviews, and they tell us the truth. It’s pretty stunning sometimes.”

Critique your firm’s programs and policies and benchmark them against the legal industry, then against other industries. “It’s much easier to overcome resistance from law firm members if you can present data that’s your own, not from a study or a research report,” says Black. “That will help a lot in overcoming some of the attitudes that I think still exist in law firms that make it difficult to make change.”

Benchmarking your firm’s performance against other industries can provide some interesting information. Cheryl Stephens, who has worked in chartered accounting firms, describes the atmosphere there as being very different from law firms. “There’s the absence of that sense of urgency. Everything is not life or death or immediate.”

Many lawyers, male and female, desire more control over their work, including its pace. When people have more control over their day, they’re more satisfied and better able to deal with disruptions and problems.

“In law firms you don’t dare question anything, and everything is urgent. It’s a lack of consideration of other people’s schedules and needs. It’s a different mindset from accounting firms”, says Stephens. “Although accountants did important work, I didn’t find they thought their work was so important that everybody else and everything else in life had to suffer for it.”

Initiate an internal grievance procedure so that when a dispute arises between people in the firm, whether it’s a personality conflict or perceived sexual harassment, there is a confidential mechanism to deal with it in-house. That way there’s no negative feedback that can damage a lawyer’s career.

Be flexible in scheduling work. Some firms have very unrealistic targets for annual billing hours. Young lawyers want a better work/life balance. They want rewarding careers and to be involved parents, but most believe that having both is impossible.

The High Cost of Associate Attrition

Firms spend a lot of time, effort and money to train associates. “There is always a business cost, as well as a social cost, to losing good lawyers at the wrong time and for the wrong reasons,” says Everett.

Headhunter Stephen Nash, the Toronto-based president of The Counsel Network, agrees. “Losing somebody that you’ve trained for three or four years and now knows your clients and is productive and is integrated—that can be devastating.” Nash says that in the late ’90s, “there was a real demand for people at the associate level—you were paying 20 to 40 thousand bucks a pop. You start to realize it’s a lot cheaper to keep people and develop them, even if you have to accommodate them in terms of taking time off or being more flexible in hours than it is to lose people you’ve trained and pay the headhunters.”

“According to U.S. statistics, finding and training costs $100,000,” says Stephens, “so they save a lot of money by keeping people happy rather than having to replace them.”

According to Black, Catalyst did a survey on financial performance and gender diversity with Fortune 500 data on companies, taking their return on equity and total return on shareholder data over a five-year period. They then compared it to the level of gender diversity at senior management. “What we clearly found was statistically significant difference between the companies that had more women at the top and those that were at the lowest part of the ranks. Their performance was one-third higher. Some of the companies are starting to get this and are pulling ahead and those that aren’t addressing it at all are falling behind. I think we’re going to see the same thing in the law industry.”

“The status quo is not a foregone conclusion,” adds Black. She deals with law firms that claim nothing can be changed—it’s too expensive, clients need you 24/7, and there will always be enough young men coming through law school to fill the positions. “To me that’s not a given anymore. The firms that are not addressing this issue over the long run will likely find their performance handicapped. There are going to be leading firms and there are going to be lagging firms and firms can make a choice where they want to be on this.”

Just as the cost of losing clients and trying to get new ones makes it preferable to keep your current clients happy, keeping your women associates happy means you’ll have a better chance of keeping them—and of having a better bottom line for your firm.

Ann Macaulay is a Toronto-based freelance writer.