Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Why Can't Law Firms Retain Women?

It's no secret that in large law firms, men fare far better than women.  All one needs to do is review any website of any major law firm (or simply walk the halls) to see that most partners are men.
Still, I was shocked by an article published in the Washington Post last month, entitled "Large law firms are failing women," which conveyed some alarming statistics:

"Women are enrolled in half of law school classes and work alongside men in nearly equal numbers as associates.  And yet, women today are twice as likely as men to leave law firms for reasons like work-life balance.  What's more, in a survey of more than 17,000 law firm associates, women rated their firms' culture, their job satisfaction and their compensation (to name just a few) much lower than their male counterparts did.  This may provide some insight behind the statistic that only 4% of the 200 top U.S. law firms have female, firm-wide managing partners."  


We women go from making up 50% of a law school class, to 4% of managing partners.

There is clearly a problem here.  

The fact is, women, for the most part, are still the primary caregivers of their children in this day and age.  And law firms certainly don't make it easy.  Biglaw is notorious for brutal hours.  For a lack of work-life balance.  For having a "sweat shop" mentality.  So surely, the answer is to change the policies, right?  To provide flexible work schedules and reduced hours and generous maternity leave packages?  Maybe then it will be easier for women to stay?  

Not so.  

Ironically, large law firms actually have some of the best benefits for women.  Many provide for 18 weeks paid maternity leave, and up to 6 weeks for men.  Many have policies for part time work, or telecommunicating, and some have gone so far as to have provisions for women to take a leave of absence, with their jobs held for them during their time off.  Some law firms even have child care centers on site, and nearly all have some sort of arrangement whereby attorneys have access to back-up childcare should their child be ill.  

So why aren't these policies working?  

The author of the Washington Post article, Selena Rezvani, an author of books on women and the workplace, puts it quite simply:

"As an adviser to corporate women's networks, I am hard pressed to name an industry that simultaneously has more progressive policies and yet more of an old-school culture than the large law firm environment does."

You can change the rules, but you can't change the culture.  

As a former law firm associate myself, I can attest to this phenomenon firsthand.  It doesn't matter what the attorney manual says, or what the Director of HR has granted you in terms of part time hours.  In a law firm, you're expected to always exceed what is asked of you.  (We all know those minimum billable hours requirements aren't real minimums.)  So when you are headed out the door at 5:00 pm on a Monday night to relieve your nanny, and you pass a partner in the hall, you can almost see the look of disgust on their face.  

They never left at 5pm on a Monday night when they were an associate.  And you know what? Most other associates don't leave at 5pm on a Monday.  Who do you think you are?  Just because you have a child, you are somehow now "special"?  Somehow by virtue of being a mother, you get to climb the associate ranks with sleep and flexibility and some semblance of a life?  That's not what it's like to be an associate.  That's not what it's like to be at a law firm, for God's sake.  That's just not how it's done.  

There are written rules, and then there are rules that are unspoken.  But ironically, it's the unspoken rules that come through loud and clear.  

And that's why the women leave.  

So what's the solution?  The author of the Washington Post article argues that the answer is to get more women in upper level positions, in high ranking committees, and to have women be the co-creator's of the firm's policies.  

I disagree, to a certain extent.  Because not all women are fans of work-life initiatives either. Perhaps they don't have children, or perhaps they do, but they did not have the opportunity to (or chose not to) avail themselves of part time policies or generous maternity leaves.  In fact, I have found that the latter type of women partners are particularly hostile to female associates who try to maintain a work-life balance.  

Instead, I think it's important to focus on three things: 

1) Trying to retain women who have opted for flexible schedules.  All too often, these women work for a few years at a reduced schedule, and then find the pressures of biglaw life, and the unwritten rules, to be too much for raising children.  They ultimately leave the law firm, and as a result, the very attorneys that are sympathetic to female attorneys with children, and could help reshape the culture, are absent.  

2) Trying to stop thinking of this as a women's issue.  While it's true that most attorneys that opt to go part time or take a leave of absence are women, there is no reason that it should be the case. The bias against men availing themselves of these "soft" policies is even greater than it is for women.  In fact, though many law firms offer men 6 weeks of paternity leave, can you really think of anyone who has actually taken it?  I am betting not.  Family friendly policies should apply equally to men and women, and both should be encouraged to take advantage of them.  

3) Trying to be honest.  It doesn't help anyone if flexible policies are implemented, only to be scoffed at behind closed doors.  The political correctness of the issue encourages silence, which only breeds resentment and hostility.  Law firms should have an open dialogue about the policies they advance, perhaps by creating a permanent "Work-Life coordinator," in the same way they employee a "Director of Diversity."  They should hire outside consultants that can help them adopt new ways of thinking, and who can point out, in financial terms, why it is advantageous to implement these policies and put forth an effort to retaining more women.   

This ship has obviously sailed for me.  It has been three years since I left my firm, and I am unlikely to ever go back to a law firm again (though I'd happily serve as a work-life coordinator!).  But I still feel passionately about this issue.  

Because 4% is freaking ridiculous.  


  1. It's funny, a lot of these issues are present in medicine-it's not exactly a family friendly practice, especially during residency, when workweeks typically exceed 80 hours (I know there are restrictions, but who on earth REALLY follows them?) at a time when a lot of male and female physicians are having babies and families. That being said, we have a lot of 'assistant professors' who are female, but very few 'professors' or 'chair of XXX medicine' who are female.

  2. With regard to number 3...the problems with the culture of biglaw also are perpetuated by women who made the big sacrifices and "made it." When I look around I see no role models at all. All the young women partners at my firm, those who have kids, seemed to have entrusted their children's care to a nanny. They are never home and travel all the time. This is their choice, and that's fine, but I wish biglaw would just stop pretending that you can be an attentive and present parent and a successful biglaw partner. It is not possible given the demands.

  3. This is why I will never work in Biglaw. I make a small fraction of what my friends in big firms make, but if I leave at 5pm, no one looks at me with contempt.

  4. This post really spoke to me today. In fact, I changed my blog entry today because of this one. Check it out at thinkandquestionbiglaw.com

  5. As a senior associate at a big Canadian firm, I can attest to the fact it is the same here. At a recent meeting to discuss partnership track at the firm, the senior associates at the table were about 50/50 men and women. Maybe 8 of each (or so). Of the 8 men, 7 had children (most had more than one) and of the 8 women....2. So here we are - women have to make the choice and not have a family if they want to make it (it almost goes without saying that I killed my career by having my child) and the men get both. I don't care what family friendly policy is in place - if you avail yourself of those policies, you are done. The business model just can't manage it. The product being sold is the almighty billable hour, and if you aren't selling enough product, you aren't good for business.

    I'd love to think that if women were in management positions that things would change, and they could (if there were enough of them), but I'm pretty pessimistic of that ever happening. We have some (1) woman in a management position, but she is old school "I made sacrifices and never saw a recital so you should do that too" kind of person. We need women on top who have made significant sacrifices but who don't want other women to have to do the same.

    Ramble ramble ramble. Sorry!

  6. I am at a "lifestyle" boutique (i.e., required hours only 1900/year), and it is no better here. In fact, I find it worse than big law because a) you have the same culture issues you discuss, and b) there are no written policies. The associates had to push for a maternity leave policy (while hoping the pushing didn't make it seem like they weren't devoted to the firm), and the one we got is still far below what big law offers. Even more so for men--they get 2 weeks now, but they are STRONGLY encouraged to be back in the office within days.

    I second the comment that some of the women at the top are the most hostile to those who are looking for balance. I have heard this attitude from both the single female partner (whose motto is "if you want what men have, you gotta act like a man"), and the female partner with children (whose motto is "nobody went out of their way for me, why should anyone go out of their way for you?"). Almost all of the partners--men and women--have spouses with less-demanding careers, and don't believe that there's any way to be successful in this line of work other than making it your number one priority. They refuse to let anyone work part time.

    So where does this leave a dual "power career" couple hoping to have kids? I am at a loss. No kids yet, but I worry all of the time about what we will do. I don't want to be "just another woman who couldn't hack it at a law firm," but I can't see any way that having a child would be compatible with keeping this job (even though, aside from the lifestyle issues, this is a job and career that I really do enjoy).

  7. I really loved this post and agreed with so many points you made. I am an associate at a medium-sized firm. Since my oldest was born a few years ago, I have been fortunate enough to be able to work a "reduced hours" schedule. Similar to another woman who commented, our firm does not have a maternity policy either... so, I took the initiative to put together my own proposal as far as time off, and a proposed reduced-hour schedule after I returned from maternity leave. My proposal was approved. Perhaps it was because my proposal made the partners' lives easier (to know how to handle my maternity leave); but, nonetheless, it was approved. However, although I may have lower billables and reduced benchmark, I have of course been counseled, repeatedly, that my benchmark is only a minimum, not a "goal". The stress is really no less than it was previously.
    The ironic thing is, I feel the male partners are much more supportive of my schedule than the female partner (who once told me it is impossible to be both a good mother and a good litigator). As women, we need to be more less competitive and more SUPPORTIVE of each other. I think that having more family-friendly women in management positions could help change the culture so prevalent in the legal world.

  8. I love this post as well. I'm in my last month practicing as a lawyer. As of the end of March, after 10 years in the practice and a set of twins, I will be a full time mom. And for many of the reasons you discussed, I can't keep pulling myself in two trying to meet the needs of the firm and the needs of my family. And I was even working part time, telecommuting, so flexible work arrangements aren't always the answer (or at least they weren't for me). I wanted to be the poster girl for flexible work arrangements and how to make it work and have it all, but I think the culture, as you pointed out, makes it an uphill battle.

    So I'm leaving. And I'm doing what seems to be the trend, starting a blog to talk about why I left and what on earth I'm going to do now - don't look at my blog for a while though (check in after April). I'm going through the learning curve of new technologies and software - I've always relied on IT to sort out my computer for me!!!!

    PS - first time posting to your blog but I love the title! Somehow, I feel like I may be using this phrase for a while!

  9. I just came across this - and your blog - and I couldn't agree more. I am currently working for Biglaw - incidentally, I went to Penn around the same time you did. I have a flexible position - but still feel the pressure (real or maybe imagined?) from other attorneys in management outside my group. I've also found some of the female partners to be a working mom's worst enemy. It's as though they couldn't have it so neither should you. I've also noticed that even when I don't directly feel pressure from management, I feel it indirectly watching all the other mom associates who want to be able to balance things be forced out.


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