The Changing Practice of Law
Why are women attorneys leaving the practice of law at a point when they should be advancing in their careers?
By Belinda May Arambula
In the world of national politics, 2018 was referred to as the Year of the Woman.1 Of the 535 seats in the U.S. Congress, 127 (23.7%) are now held by women; 25 women (25%) in the Senate, and 102 women (23.4%) in the House of Represen-tatives.2 With this newly achieved political representation, one would expect to see women attorneys likewise ascending into positions of power at their respective firms. However, it appears the private sector may move slower than the political sector.
Statistically, the global population consists of roughly 50% women.3 Since the first woman graduated from law school in 1870, female enrollment has steadily increased, resulting in modern female law school attendance roughly proportional to the population. While this increase in law school enrollment illustrates the advancements made by the women’s liberation movement and is reflective of a legal system that encourages balance, the practice of law is currently composed of 62%men and only 38% women.4 This female attrition nearing one-half reflects a grand exodus of women from the practice of law. This raises the following questions: Why does this occur? What can we do to address this departure? What is the benefit of keeping women in the practice of law?
Based on the percent population at each milestone of a legal education and career, female attrition becomes evident at partner status. Graduating law school classes consist of 50% women.5 In private practice, women make up 48.7% of summer associates6 and 45.91% of associates,7 but only 22.7% of partners8 and 19% of equity partners.9 Interestingly, at the highest echelon of the legal community, the U.S. Supreme Court, women represent 33.3% of the bench.
The common misperception is that women leave the practice of law to care for their families. Some surveys show the reality is less than a quarter of women leave their practice to stay home.10 The remainder obtain employment in government, nonprofit, or other professions. Women, like men, are complicated. Their motivation for leaving a career that took seven years and in some instances over $100,000 to obtain cannot be boiled down to a singular reason. Nevertheless, many women reported leaving because of a lack of career satisfaction and finding their careers plateau due to lack of development.
Is there a conflict between the biological clock and
Most small- to medium-size firms have three levels: associate, non-equity holders, and equity holders. Today, seven to nine years is the time frame for “making partner”—generally this means non-equity partner. The leap to equity partner can take additional time. This promotion schedule is in direct conflict with women’s biological clocks. Many women believe they should not get pregnant as an associate out of fear of appearing not as committed as the male associates or out of concern of the effects pregnancy, maternity leave, and infants will have on their billable hours. However, as time progresses and promotions to non-equity holder occur, so does the demand for increased availability of the attorney and the need for client development. Delays in the partner-ship track and client development adversely impact the compensation women attorneys can expect.11
Keeping the keepers: How do firms keep the women who are
dedicated to both partnership and family?
Given the fact that firms spend thousands of dollars in developing young attorneys, it is clearly financially beneficial for firms to keep the women with potential to become partners and firm leaders. Associates typically reach a basic level of profitability in their third year, so attrition of women after this time negatively impacts the firm’s bottom line, employee morale, and organizational stability.12
Moreover, women are believed to bring different valuable attributes to the practice that firms should seek to retain. According to psychological analysis, women have enhanced empathy, communication, and listening skills. They also possess advanced intermediary skills such as negotiation and conflict resolution.13 Therefore, women attorneys find increased opportunities as successful mediators.
A Harvard Business Review survey14 of 1,800 business people worldwide concluded that 80% believe companies benefit from a gender diverse workforce; 75% reported having initiatives in the workplace to improve gender parity, but less than 25%felt those initiatives were effective. Clients seek diversity by delineating “diversity in team” as a basis for maintaining firms on their preferred panels when evaluating whether to move their business in house.
Recognizing the financial benefit to retaining attorneys, firms should develop a plan to keep the keepers.
Mentorships help women stay in the practice
Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once said, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” This is particularly true in the legal community, where there are few women in positions of power to help the future generations—those who have ascended to leadership roles should serve as mentors. Male lawyers also can foster growth for female colleagues by mentoring and assisting them with business development and being supportive. This includes addressing comments, subtle or overt, that are demeaning, dismissive, or alienating. For example, when a male lawyer introduces a female colleague as his law partner to others, he helps to change the perception that the female is the assistant.
Regarding client development, introducing younger attorneys, particularly women, to existing clients will develop networks and enable them to become rainmakers. Mentoring women lawyers not only strengthens their legal work product, but also provides them with client development opportunities. With additional exposure to clients, the attorney becomes the contact person and eventually can prove herself to the client as reliable and qualified. Providing the opportunity for women to participate in the management of office life and governance fosters loyalty and a sense of belonging.15
Equalizing pay among genders will improve female retention. According to a 2014 ABA Journal article by Stephanie Francis Ward, female lawyers and judges still continue to earn about 82% less than their male counterparts. The fact that equally experienced female attorneys make less than their male counterparts for similar work remains a serious problem.
Alternative schedules as a potential solution to the grand
There are now new models that allow attorneys to remain practicing law on a flexible schedule. Attorneys at these firms are permitted to pick and choose assignments that fit their schedules and remain in the practice of law. These firms focus exclusively on serving attorneys who have left large firms.
Flexible schedules require a trust that female lawyers can manage their responsibilities even if work is not occurring in the typical office setting. It should not matter when the work is done. If an attorney provides quality work that meets the client’s demands, the pressure for face time at the office during peak family-needs time will be somewhat alleviated.
While these models seem to be an immediate answer to address time constraints working parents face, it is not clear that these models are a sustainable or long-term solution.
Current statistical evidence illustrates a grand exodus of women attorneys at a point in their careers when they should be advancing beyond associate. This does not have to be the fate of women who desire to continue the pursuit of their legal career. Through mentorship, an active effort on behalf of both genders to alter misconceptions about women, and greater representation in leadership positions within firms, we will see better representation in numbers of women reaching equity partnership, and perhaps rather than catchy phrases like the year of the woman, people will say it is the year(s) of equality. TBJ
BELINDA MAY ARAMBULA is a partner in Burns, Anderson, Jury & Brenner. Her litigation practice is composed of complex and diverse civil litigation, representing individuals and companies at both the trial and appellate court levels. Arambula’s practice is devoted primarily to contested probate matters, catastrophic injury, premises liability, and construction defect cases in which she enjoys providing efficient and effective results for her clients.