United States: There's No Checklist For Retaining Women

For years, women have been graduating from law school in equal numbers with men, and law firms' hiring has generally reflected this balance. At some point between being hired and becoming an equity partner, though, women leave. Based on statistics released by the American Bar Association, women comprise only 34 percent of the legal profession. Numbers of women at the highest levels are even more dismal: only 17 percent of equity partners and 4 percent of the 200 largest firms' managing partners are women.

Why does this matter? One reason is clients and juries alike are increasingly demanding a diverse team of lawyers. In order to retain current clients, and land new ones, firms must do more to retain their women lawyers. Women are natural collaborators, listeners, and multi-taskers and provide a different viewpoint for arriving at the best solution or creating the best strategy. The plan to retain women in your law firm should not only recognize these traits, but also assign them a value when evaluating job performance and compensation.

So where are the women at law firms? While the easy answer is to assume they have prioritized family obligations over work, the real question is what part law firms play in pushing women attorneys out the door. It is not just working mothers who are absent from the ranks of equity and managing partners, but women attorneys as a whole.

While the question is clear, the answers are not. This article is not intended to be an all-inclusive retention checklist. Further, we do not claim to know every reason women decide to leave law firms or the practice of law. Rather, we hope to provide a few suggestions from our perspective as female associates to plant seeds about what changes need to be made to stem the exodus of women lawyers.

Valuable Training

Providing women attorneys firsthand experience is one of the most significant ways a law firm can retain women. A recent research report from the ABA's Commission on Women in the Profession examined the participation of women lawyers as lead counsel in litigation. The findings were not encouraging. The report found that of all lawyers that appeared in civil cases in one federal district, more than three-quarters of lead counsel were men.

While many clients expect the seasoned partner to first chair a trial, there are many other opportunities to promote female associates. For instance, depositions and oral arguments on discovery disputes enable attorneys to develop litigation skills. Instead of just assigning your female associate to draft a motion, give her the opportunity to argue the motion in court. These experiences build confidence and enhance career fulfillment and success.

Unconscious Bias

Firm leadership often fails to recognize or acknowledge an unconscious bias against women lawyers with young children. It is not uncommon for firm management to question whether these women attorneys can handle complex assignments or work as "hard" as their male counterparts. As a result, they might receive less challenging tasks or poorer performance evaluations, directly affecting their compensation.

Instead of assuming a woman lawyer needs or wants less work after returning from maternity leave, law firms should engage in open discussions with their returning mothers. The weight on a working mom attorney's shoulders is great and often it takes some time for her to find a schedule that satisfies both her work and home commitments. Firms need to be aware of this stress and work to support the returning mother by affirming its commitment to her and the advancement of her career.

Client Development

In the legal profession today, client development is critical to a lawyer's ultimate success. Access to significant networking and client development opportunities is pivotal. Given that more than 80 percent of equity partners at law firms are male, it necessarily follows that male partners have the most access to client development opportunities. But, many male partners are reluctant to invite a female associate to lunch or drinks after work for fear of sparking the appearance of an affair or sexual harassment rumors. Law firms can address these issues by implementing formal client development programs, client succession plans that include women, and education on implicit bias and how it impacts opinions and decisions.

Lack of Sponsors

The legal profession is difficult. Mentors and sponsors—of both genders—often help young lawyers uncover the hidden rules for success. Lawyers and the profession suffer when lawyers do not receive adequate mentorship. Law firms should foster mentorship, both formally and informally, especially since, in most firms, very few women embody the idea of traditional success. You can't ignore the trickledown effect this lack of women in power has on a woman's decision to leave a law firm. As an example of formal mentorship, Strasburger has one senior female attorney whose primary focus is mentoring women attorneys. Advancement is nearly impossible in a law firm without the support and sponsorship of someone in a position of power.

Women lawyers are an expensive investment a majority of law firms are allowing to simply walk out the door. Law firms must implement measures to retain women who are the future legal industry leaders. As you evaluate whether the old firm model needs change, you should also invest in meaningful changes to increase the retention of women. These changes should include increased mobility and flexibility, real efforts to give women the first-hand experience needed to find success, and proper evaluations and compensation for your women lawyers. Of course, you should invite your women lawyers to be part of the discussion. These measures will benefit your firm as a whole and lead to greater success for all your attorneys.

Previously published in Texas Lawyer (September 2015).

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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