Why do female lawyers leave law firms? 'Blatantly unfair' compensation often cited, new ABA report says
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Compensation systems that are “blatantly unfair” and “rife with gender bias” were most often cited as the reason female attorneys left their law firms, according to a new ABA report based on focus groups and interviews with experienced female lawyers.
Female lawyers reported that they originated more work than some male colleagues yet received lower compensation, according to the report by the American Bar Foundation, undertaken in collaboration with the ABA Commission on Women in the Legal Profession.
The report is titled In Their Own Words: Experienced Women Lawyers Explain Why They Are Leaving Their Law Firms and the Profession. The study is part of the ABA Initiative on Long-Term Careers for Women in Law.
A May 3 ABA press release summarizes the findings.
Unfair compensation was among a combination of factors affecting women’s decisions to stay at their law firms, move to a different legal job, or leave the profession after 15 or more years of practice, according to the report.
Many women in the study were breadwinners in the family with lower-paid or unpaid spouses. Pay disparities affected the women’s ability to support their families, as well as leadership opportunities in their law firms, the report said.
“They do not compensate women because they think women can afford to make less money, because they have husbands. But I am the main moneymaker [in my family],” said one female lawyer.
Several female lawyers were told that they were making less than male lawyers because the men have to support a wife and kids. Many also spoke of inequitable distribution of origination credit.
“It can be frustrating when you are working on [the matter], you are proving yourself, and then the credit goes to someone who is kissing up,” one female lawyer said.
One woman said she volunteered to take a new matter that came in to her firm through a senior partner who didn’t want it. The female partner developed expertise and built a million-dollar book of business in the practice area. The senior partner took all the origination credit. When she questioned the decision, the senior partner said, “We just really didn’t think you’d care that much about the money.”
Other factors influencing decisions to leave include:
• A “hypercompetitive culture” and a “bullying atmosphere” that erode collegiality. “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,” said one in-house lawyer. Several women spoke of male lawyers angling to claim their origination credit, including one who declared that the client was in his Rolodex.
• Isolation driven partly by ever-increasing demands for billable hours and partly by the law firm atmosphere. “It’s harder to get that camaraderie and that exchange of ideas and the brainstorming when you are a slave to the billable hour,” said one lawyer. Many women also pointed to a lack of women in leadership as a factor in their isolation.
• Sexist and racist behavior. Many women described their law firms as “male clubs.”
• A desire for more challenging or fulfilling work. Some female lawyers said they were denied opportunities commensurate with their skill level. Some said senior partners hoarded more interesting work.
• Being passed over for promotions, especially promotions to equity partner. Many women said they were stuck at the nonequity partner level. Lack of upward mobility was even more of a problem for women who worked reduced schedules.
• Long hours and unpredictable schedules. A frequent topic of discussion was flexibility to manage personal and professional schedules. “Inflexibility pushed women out of their firms, while flexibility retained them,” the report said.
On the positive side, women in practice and those who had left identified the best aspects of their practice as intellectual stimulation and relationships with colleagues. Other positive factors cited by both groups included the ability to help clients solve legal problems, autonomy, the social impact of their work and money.
The report is based on 12 focus groups in six cities and 12 individual interviews. It addressed three questions: What do female lawyers like about law practice? What negative factors or experiences make them consider leaving? What changes can be made to encourage women to stay in practice?
The proportion of female partners has increased only marginally since the 1990s, even though law firms hire female associates in about equal proportions as male associates, the report said. Women of color fare even worse, with the highest rate of attrition from law firms.
Women make up 24% of partners as compared to 15% in 1999. After seven years of law practice, men are two to five times more likely to become partners than women.
Women also lag in pay. In its Profile of the Legal Profession, the ABA reported that male equity partners earned 27% more than female equity partners.
The ABA report was written by Joyce Sterling, a professor emeritus at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law who has researched problems faced by women in their legal careers, and Linda Chanow, a nonprofit executive who has worked to advance women in the profession.
The report said law firms can take several steps to retain female lawyers, including these:
• Develop a strategy and set targets. Look at gender statistics, including compensation by gender.
• Assess the impact of firm policies and practices on female lawyers. Strategies may include creating equitable credit-allocation processes, incentivizing shared credit, and improving systems to resolve credit disputes.
• Ensure that there is a critical mass of female partners on key firm committees.
• Increase lateral hiring of female partners.
• Provide resources to relieve pressures from family obligations that are faced more often by women than men. Adopting flexible practices is essential.
• Build camaraderie.
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