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Why are women lawyers leaving the profession?

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For almost 30 years, women have been graduating from law school in roughly equal numbers to men, yet they are leaving the profession in droves. Why?

To answer that question, ABA President Hilarie Bass of Miami launched “Achieving Long-Term Careers for Women in Law,” an initiative that features research on legal careers using life-cycle models from the fields of sociology, social psychology, and economics. 

Hilarie Bass While the final results of the initiative are scheduled to be released at the ABA’s Annual Meeting this summer in Chicago, Bass was on hand at The Florida Bar’s Annual Convention in Orlando in June and gave those attending a Florida Registered Paralegal Committee seminar an overview of what is being discussed and learned.

When Bass entered the profession 35 years ago, she said the lack of women lawyers was attributed to a pipeline issue; and it was assumed that with the increased number of women entering law school, it was just a matter of time before the number of men and women in the profession equalized.

“We know that has not happened,” said Bass, adding that some 20 years after graduating from law school, far too many women have not reached the same success as men, or have left the profession entirely. Thus, even though women comprise 45 percent of associates, they account for only 19 percent of equity partners in private firms.

“We keep focusing on this issue that there are only 19 percent equity partners and 5 percent managing partners,” Bass said. “But when we dug down in those numbers, what we realized is that there are not all that many women left at the time you would expect them to be reaching those levels.”

And that, Bass said, must be addressed.

“What we are focused on within the law firms. . . are there things we can do to ensure that women perceive that they are welcomed, that they feel comfortable, that they achieve what they want to achieve,” Bass said.

Bass said women are telling the ABA there are four general reasons they are abandoning the profession: success fatigue; an elevated glass ceiling; sexual harassment; and implicit bias.

Success Fatigue

Success fatigue is the idea that whatever women lawyers do, they have to do it “a little better” than their male colleagues to get the same level of recognition, said Bass, the co-president of Greenberg Traurig.

“Women tell us at some point, it gets really old watching the guy next door work less hours, get more compensation, get better recognition, and we are just working away,” she said.

Bass said the ABA is also hearing that women perceive the glass ceiling still exists, albeit now at an elevated level.

“For most women, there is no gender-based issue in getting the first job,” Bass said. “Most women tell us they don’t think gender had any impact on their ability to become a partner in their law firm, but in every step above — whether it is practice group chair, equity partner, managing partner — women tell us that they definitely still perceive that they are treated differently at those upper levels.”

As for sexual harassment, Bass said she was “blown away” by recent studies by The Florida Bar and the State Bar of California that showed the extent of sexual harassment in the profession. She said in 2017, The Florida Bar found that as many as 50 percent of female lawyers report experiencing some form of sexual harassment or bullying at work. That number was 39 percent in the California study.

“Whether you think it is 30 percent, 40 percent, or 50 percent, this is 2018, and we should not be seeing that a material percentage of women in the law are still dealing with this issue,” Bass said. “It is a real challenge and we have to address it.”

One of the results of the #MeToo/#TimesUp movements is that now when Bass talks about these issues, managing partners acknowledge that sexual harassment exists in the legal field, but “typically tell me, ‘Well, I don’t know anything about that happening in my firm,’”

Chances are, however, it is, Bass said.

Yet, just acknowledging that sexual harassment exists in law firm culture represents an “enormous” step forward, Bass said, “because there is now recognition of this problem as a real issue.”

But of course, she said, there is push back — be it the colleague who half-joking says, “I can’t hug you anymore” to the partner who won’t take a woman associate with him out of town “because it wouldn’t be appropriate under current circumstances.”

The counter, Bass said, is that if your behavior was appropriate for the first 40 years of your life, the standard has not changed.

“The same behavior that you have always engaged in that you always felt comfortable with and no one complained about, that’s still OK,” she said. “But the kind of behavior that is being complained about. . . is so clearly across the line that there is really not any debate.”

Potentially Career Ending

Another insidious aspect of sexual harassment is what happens when women register complaints about inappropriate behavior.

“They perceive it as potentially career ending,” Bass said. “Even if it is made anonymously, at some point people are going to figure out it was you, and you are going to be ostracized.”

Bass said it is important for men to understand that the vast majority of women don’t come forward with accusations of sexual harassment lightly, and they only do so after “a whole lot of soul-searching and a recognition that it could be career damaging.”

Bass said it won’t get better until the ostracization of victims ends and everybody calls out those who act inappropriately, not just the victims. Complaints can’t just end with the human resources department, either. Those complaints must be heard at the highest levels of the firm, the most important management groups.

“There should be at least annual reporting as to the number of claims. . . and how they are being resolved,” Bass said. “It has got to start at the top and if there are real penalties imposed for people who act inappropriately, most people feel comfortable that the conduct will begin to be eliminated.”

Implicit Bias

Perhaps the biggest reason women leave the profession “and sadly the most difficult to weed out,” Bass said, is implicit bias.

While the vast majority of lawyers say they would never intentionally discriminate, “my response to that is we are not suggesting it is intentional,” Bass said.

Men and women have implicit biases based on how they were socialized from the youngest age, Bass said.

“Women and men grow up differently. When little boys learn to play they are all out there to prove they are the absolute best on the team,” Bass said. “And what do little girls do? We sit in a circle with dolls and we all want to get along.”

In the law firm setting, she said, everybody assumes they are being objective, but study after study shows that is not the case. It can be as simple as asking women colleagues about their plans instead of making assumptions, such as “she can’t go to St. Louis for a month, she has a two-month-old baby.”

“Well, did you ask her if she wanted to go to St. Louis for a month on a case she has been working on for two years?” Bass said. “There are assumptions people make that we need to challenge.”

It is possible to overcome implicit biases, but one must first recognize that they exist, she said. And those implicit biases can tilt the legal playing field.

Bass said putting women into leadership positions also makes a difference.

“Once you put a woman in a position of authority, other women are more attracted to the firm or the environment because they think if it is hospitable for you, there must be opportunity there for me,” she said.

The overall goal of the ABA initiative is to make empirically based recommendations for what law firms, corporations, bar associations, and individual lawyers can do to enhance the prospects for women to reach the highest levels of practice and remain in the profession.

“What we are looking for is the time when the average hard-working woman lawyer can be perceived and do as well in her career as the average hard-working man and then we will know we have really achieved something.”

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