ABA Interviews Reveal Combination of Factors That Lead Women to Leave Law Firms

In Their Own Words, a report from the American Bar Association’s Initiative on Long-Term Careers for Women in Law, sheds light on the complex reasons experienced women lawyers leave law firms or legal practice entirely. The document summarizes findings from interviews and focus groups with over one hundred women, each with fifteen or more years in the legal profession.

As the report describes:

“Law practice today is challenging by any measure. The increasing billable hour and fee generation expectations, hyper-competitiveness, and 24/7 availability demanded by clients make law practice a difficult profession for both women and men. For women, however, these challenges are compounded by pay and promotion disparities, sexist and racist behavior, and isolation, which leave many women asking themselves whether the fight is worth it.”

The interviewees shared anecdotes about law firm leadership justifying pay raises for men with comparable or smaller books of business to their women counterparts on the grounds that they had families to support. Minority women in particular described being brought into pitch meetings, presumably to tout the firm’s diversity to potential clients, and then being excluded from the actual work of the matters. These experienced women lawyers recounted cases in which origination credit was inexplicably granted to men who hadn’t worked with any of the current corporate counsel or men who clients requested be removed from their matters. The feeling of unfairness from instances like these ultimately led many of these attorneys to leave their firms for in-house roles or to exit the legal industry permanently. The perceived promotion and pay disparities are supported by data like that included in the NAWL 2019 Survey Report, which found that “men are paid more per year than women…across the Am Law 200 for all attorney types and levels.”

The report highlighted another interesting element that gets at some of the systemic deterrents within law firm culture, namely that so many men at the partner level had wives who did not work outside of the home. At some firms, this contributed to a lack of flexibility around hours, burdening women who often did not have stay-at-home partners and therefore had greater personal obligations. This also led in certain cases to firm leaders assuming their women colleagues would not want to take on matters that involved travel or, conversely, penalizing those who could not spend months in another location due to childcare responsibilities.

Some of the study’s participants found greater satisfaction through in-house counsel positions after leaving their firms. Citing the team spirit of that work in contrast to the cutthroat nature of many law firms, one said, “I’d rather stick needles in my eyes [than go back to a law firm because of] the billable hours, the sharp elbows, and the very competitive environment.” After being denied opportunities within law firms, women lawyers explained that they found the kinds of professional challenges they sought via in-house roles.

As the authors put it, “When experienced women leave, they take with them the substantial investments made by their organizations over the years, as well as the strong relationships with the clients they serve.” While some issues like the competitive environment may be baked in due to the levels of compensation at stake, other factors cited as causes of high attrition among women lawyers can be more effectively addressed. The report’s authors conclude with a set of recommendations, including the use of gender metrics to monitor and correct pay inequities, the provision of resources to support firm attorneys with their family obligations, and the fostering of talent’s expansion into new practice areas. The legal services sector “cannot expect to have a broad and robust base of talent when women are far less likely than men to advance into senior positions,” so the authors suggest that law firms consider attending to these issues “a business imperative.”

There is another perspective that the authors of this report fail to consider adequately: practicing at a large law firm is an overrated job. Once you look at the burnout rates, the mental health issues, and the amounts of money some lawyers could make outside of these firms, a much more measured approach seems warranted when it comes to evaluating people who leave the law. That doesn’t mean we should excuse racism or sexism at law firms, but let’s stop assuming that large law firm jobs are anything but very mixed blessings for most who choose that path.