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Why Women Lawyers Leave: A Quest for Flexible Work and Supportive Environments

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Why Women Lawyers Leave: A Quest for Flexible Work and Supportive Environments

May 14, 2009, 03:58 pm CDT

Dissatisfaction with work-life balance is pushing women lawyers in New Jersey out the door and into new jobs, a survey has found.

Most of the respondents—almost two-thirds—said they were satisfied with their ability to integrate their work and personal lives and the predictability of their hours, according to a press release. But the numbers were different for women lawyers who had changed jobs in the last five years. More than 70 percent of the job-hopping lawyers said their previous employer was not supportive of full-time flexible alternatives, while only 30 percent described their current employer as unsupportive of such arrangements.

“An important new finding of this study is that women lawyers often choose an exit strategy when faced with the dilemma of choosing between work and family obligations,” the study said. “The business case for more family-friendly approaches to the practice of law could not be more clear.”

The most often reasons cited for dissatisfaction with a previous employer were an unsupportive work environment (cited by 41 percent of the women) and poor promotion opportunities (cited by 40 percent), according to the study (PDF), conducted by Rutgers’ Center for Women and Work. Respondents were allowed to choose more than one reason.

These were followed by a desire for better wages and benefits (33 percent) and more challenging work opportunities (30 percent). Explicit work/life concerns appeared next: long work hours (30 percent), difficulty integrating work with one’s family or personal life (29 percent), and a lack of flexibility in work hours (29 percent).

The study notes that women comprise about 45 percent of the associates in New Jersey law firms, which matches national figures. But women comprise only 17 percent of law firm partners in New Jersey and 19 percent nationally.

Blatant discrimination is on the wane, the study said, but subtle bias remains in the form of lack of advancement opportunities, bias against mothers and generational conflicts. One respondent complained that men view women who take maternity leave as slackers. Another said the men at her firm clearly resent maternity leave. “They think it is … something that women go off and go, ‘Woohoo! We don’t have to work for [three] months.’ ”

The study also noted generational differences between Baby Boomer lawyers and the generations that followed. This comment came from an older lawyer: “I never in 18 years before missed one day of work because of my kids. I had plan A, plan B, plan C, and I might have gotten into work at 10 a.m. instead of 9 a.m., but I got there.” Younger women lawyers on the other hand will admit to numerous absences for child care, the lawyer continues. “I am probably nuts because I set so high a bar,” the lawyer says, but she also notes that the younger lawyers see time off as an entitlement. “I think there has to be probably a balance” between the two philosophies, she says.

A younger lawyer offers another observation: “The irony of working at my firm is that the few women partners that we have are even more terrible than the men partners at times. They are definitely the Iron Ladies, who became partners in the late 80s when they had to be more men than the men. They are harsh, expect more, teach less, and are very critical. … They went through it, now we have to go through it, and look here, they were able to have children, too.”

Legal Blog Watch notes the statistic showing 30 percent of the female lawyers who changed jobs in the last five years are still dissatisfied with their current employer’s work-life flexibility. “While that’s a significant drop from the 70 percent dissatisfaction levels indicated before women changed jobs, having a full third of female lawyers unhappy at their firms isn’t a figure worth celebrating, in my book,” Carolyn Elefant wrote.

The blog also notes the report was prepared in early 2008 before many of the law firm cutbacks.

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