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Why are women leaving the law?

Associate Editor Regular News

In an age when women are graduating from law school at the same rate as men, why are they leaving the profession in such high numbers by age 50 and what can be done about it?

Hilarie Bass These are questions Miami’s Hilarie Bass studied during her term as ABA president. The co-president of Greenberg Traurig, whose ABA presidential term concluded in August, launched an initiative, Achieving Long-Term Careers for Women in Law.

Bass said while women start out in the profession on par with men, they decline to 26 to 27 percent by age 50.

Michelle Suskauer Florida Bar President Michelle Suskauer said the ABA study is troubling because it shows women are abandoning the law when they should be at the height, or approaching the height, of their careers.

“If women continue to leave the profession in the numbers we’re seeing, we’re never going to break that 20 percent mark of being equity partners,” Suskauer said.

“And we are losing that institutional knowledge. We’re losing their contacts. We’re losing their talent. And we’re losing diversity in our firms,” Suskauer said.

Suskauer was also interested in the significant difference in perception men and women have about the profession when she saw the ABA results.

The ABA’s year-long series of three different studies involved focus groups containing women over age 50 who chose to stay in the profession and those who chose to leave. Bass said they were asked in detail why they left or stayed, and what their firms could have done differently to alter that trajectory.

When asked why gender disparities remain at law firms, the focus groups pointed to:

• Closed compensation system.

• The credit system disadvantages women.

• The breadmaker/homemaker stereotypes persist.

• The “boys club” limits opportunities for women.

• Ageism impacts men and women differently.

Quote “Women often feel like they’re being brought along on a business pitch, not because anybody thinks they have capabilities or something to contribute, but as a token; so they can show the client the firm is diverse,” Bass said. “And if the work comes in, [the women lawyers] often don’t get credit for the origination, and/or aren’t asked to participate in doing the work.”

The focus groups also had ideas for how to change the system, and among them are:

• Develop succession plans for distributing credit.

• Diversify leadership and make sure leadership champions diversity.

• Provide continuous training with a focus on business development.

• Offer on-ramping opportunities.

• Include men in diversity discussions and policies.

• Formalize policies.

A second study involved electronic surveys conducted in partnership with American Legal Media (ALM) of the top 350 firms in the country asking men and women similar questions. Managing partners were questioned to evaluate what they thought was going on in their firms in reference to gender versus what the women lawyers in those firms perceived, Bass said.

The third study targeted alumni associations of five different law schools, Bass explained, comparing career trajectories 20 years or more out of the law school, and evaluating what those individuals were doing and their perceptions of their careers.

“We are still analyzing the data, and we are in the process of writing up a report that will come out sometime in the next couple of months,” Bass said.

But preliminary data from the ALM study was released at the ABA’s annual meeting in August in Chicago.

They show that managing partners and women lawyers largely agree on why women are leaving firms:

• They no longer wish to practice law.

• The level of stress at work.

• The number of billable hours.

• The caretaking commitments.

• The emphasis on originating business.

But there is a disconnect between what managing partners think firms are doing about it versus what women lawyers think, as shown in the following statements:

• Firm leaders are active advocates (82 percent of managing partners agreed vs. 61 percent of women lawyers)

• The firm promotes women into leadership (75 percent of managing partners agreed vs. 54 percent of women lawyers)

• Gender diversity is a priority (79 percent of managing partners agreed vs. 54 percent of women lawyers)

• The firm promotes women into equity (71 percent of managing partners agreed vs. 47 percent of women lawyers)

• The firm has been successful at retention (64 percent of managing partners agreed vs. 46 percent of women lawyers).

Satisfaction levels within firms varied widely by gender:

• Overall satisfaction: Men (87 percent) Women (72 percent).

• Method by which compensation is determined: Men (69 percent) Women (44 percent).

• Workplace gender diversity: Men (67 percent) Women (44 percent).

• Recognition received for work: Men (71 percent) Women (50 percent).

• Leadership of organization: Men (73 percent) Women (52 percent).

• Opportunities for advancement: Men (62 percent) Women (44 percent)

• Compensation: Men (75 percent) Women (60 percent)

• Job security: Men (77 percent) Women (65 percent)

• Opportunities for building skills: Men (81 percent) Women (70 percent)

Experiences within firms also varied widely:

• Received unwanted sexual contact: Men (6 percent) Women (49 percent).

• Experienced demeaning communications: Men (8 percent) Women (74 percent).

• Avoided reporting sexual harassment: Men (1 percent) Women (28 percent).

• Mistaken for a lower level employee: Men (0 percent) Women (81 percent).

• Lacked access to business development: Men (10 percent) Women (66 percent).

• Perceived as less committed to his or her career: Men (2 percent) Women (63 percent).

• Denied salary increase or bonus: Men (4 percent) Women (53 percent).

• Denied advancement opportunities: Men (7 percent) Women (53 percent).

• Felt treated as a token: Men (1 percent) Women (51 percent).

• Missed out on a desirable assignment: Men (11 percent) Women (47 percent).

• Experienced a lack of access to sponsors: Men (3 percent) Women (46 percent).

“All we can do is focus on the things that law firms can change,” Bass said regarding the results, adding the ABA hopes to bring some specific recommendations to the House of Delegates in February.

“Many women have pretty consistent views as to why women leave, but my view is that anecdotes don’t change policy: That requires data,” Bass said.

When it comes to finding solutions to stem the tide of women leaving the law, Suskauer says it’s a process.

“I don’t think there’s an easy fix,” Suskauer said. “Is just talking about it enough? No. It’s a combination of things. It’s talking plus action. But it’s not something that’s going to change or improve without effort.”

Suskauer said by early 2019, The Florida Bar anticipates rolling out a gender equality toolkit, and to award blue ribbon designations to firms that hire, promote, and retain women attorneys. Those recommendations are among 12 proposed by the Subcommittee on Gender Equality, a division of the Bar’s long-standing Diversity and Inclusion Committee.

“Women lawyers bring so much to their firms, to their practice areas, and to their legal communities that when they leave the profession when they should be at the height of their careers, it leaves a huge hole that is not easily filled.”

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