President's Message

ABA will study, recommend steps to address issue of too many women leaving profession

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Photo of Hilarie Bass courtesy of the Office of the President

Sandra Day O’Connor was 51 when she was appointed in 1981 as the first female justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

She reached the pinnacle of the legal world after a distinguished 30-year career as an attorney, state senator and judge. Today, unfortunately, far too many women lawyers are exiting the profession before they have that opportunity to reach the top.

Although women have been graduating from law school in roughly equal numbers to men for the past 30 years, they have not enjoyed the same long-term career success as their male counterparts.

Twenty years after graduating from law school—a time when lawyers should be enjoying their most productive years—far too many women have not attained top positions, or have left the profession entirely. Although women comprise 45 percent of law firm associates, they account for only 19 percent of equity partners in private firms, according to a new survey from the National Association of Women Lawyers. And that number has barely increased over the past 10 years. The picture is not much brighter in the corporate world, where male chief legal officers greatly outnumber female chief legal officers.

Why are these women leaving the profession just when they have the most to gain—and so much to contribute? We have plenty of assumptions and guesses. But we lack broad-based, reliable information about their reasons. To find answers, the American Bar Association is launching an initiative called “Achieving Long-term Careers for Women in Law.” Through this groundbreaking initiative, we hope to provide critical data and solutions to this crucial problem.

The first step is getting at the “why.” The initiative will sponsor two invitation-only national summits where participants will discuss what works, and what does not, when it comes to retaining experienced women at law firms, corporate law departments and other employers.

The first will be held at Harvard Law School this month (Nov. 7 and 8). The second summit is planned for Spring 2018 at another nationally recognized law school. Summit attendees will include national leaders in the profession, including chief legal officers, general counsels, managing partners and chairs of firms, judges, academics, consultants, practicing lawyers at various levels and lawyers who have pursued non-legal professions.

We also are funding innovative research on the legal careers of women lawyers, using life-cycle models borrowed from sociology, social psychology and economics. We want to study their long-term career trajectories and the factors that move them in one direction or another. We also plan to conduct focus groups to gather more in-depth perspectives on the factors that enhance or impede legal careers. An advisory council consisting of practicing lawyers and specialists in legal careers will guide the research.

The goal is to pinpoint the factors—personal, social and organizational—that affect why more experienced women lawyers stay at or leave their jobs. The research will be conducted in collaboration with the American Bar Foundation and other organizations.

Once we know the “why,” we will use these landmark studies to help employers develop policies and practices to promote the retention of senior women lawyers and eliminate this gender attrition gap. The research findings will be released before the 2018 Annual Meeting in August. We also anticipate that one or more ABA conferences and reports will be based on this important research.

When so many accomplished women lawyers are leaving the profession, the adverse impact is significant. It harms the clients who depend upon them, and their law firms, who have invested substantial time and resources on their training, but now need to find others to fill their shoes. For these reasons, many prominent law firms and corporations committed to promoting the advancement and retention of women lawyers are funding this initiative.

It is our goal to help ensure that the gender balance that exists in law schools and among associates will also be achieved among senior lawyers. Stemming the attrition of senior women lawyers will benefit law firms, corporate legal departments, clients and the profession as a whole.


Follow President Bass on Twitter @ABAPresident or email abapresident@americanbar.org.

This article appeared in the November 2017 issue of the
ABA Journal with the headline "Plugging the Leaky Pipeline: ABA will study, recommend steps to address issue of too many women leaving profession."

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