Women are deserting the law profession at a disconcerting rate. The latest data from the American Bar Association reveals that only 33% of this sector is occupied by women, demonstrating an alarming gender gap in today’s legal industry. In 2012, women obtained almost half of all law degrees yet only held 45 percent of entry-level positions. This ratio decreases drastically at the partner level where just 20% are female. The percentage of women diminishes even further at the equity partner level, which is the highest status in private practice law firms. In this group, only 15% are female.
So why are we seeing so many women leave the legal industry? I have a few ideas. The same as numerous industries, lawyers who want to advance in their careers typically do this during their prime child-rearing years. In the recent season of “Parenthood,” Julia Braverman-Graham’s ambitious journey took an unexpected turn. She had to make the tough decision between her career and being there for her son – eventually deciding to abandon her run at becoming a partner, leaving the law firm altogether in order to be present in his life.
Moreover, even for women who go back to work after a break, their development is hindered by the company itself. Marlisse Silver Sweeney, an ex-attorney spoke with The Daily Beast about something termed “maternal wall bias”. She stated that upon returning from maternity leave, partners frequently suppose women won’t be interested in extended projects or travel engagements.
As practicing attorney is a demanding career that makes it difficult to create the necessary work-life balance, firms are struggling to keep their talented female employees. The billable hours and daily time sheets of this profession often conflict with what women prefer when balancing family obligations. Yet, some law firms manage this issue better than others – demonstrating there is hope for legal professionals who need flexibility in their schedules.
41% of the women surveyed in a study on lawyers reported an unsupportive work environment was their primary source of dissatisfaction with previous employers, while 40% cited limited promotion opportunities.
In a recent Forbes article, it was revealed that the money-for-time exchange often associated with the legal practice is not enough of an incentive for women to stay in the profession. Of 1.2 million actively practicing lawyers, only 24,560 are among those who earn top wages – illustrating just how difficult it can be to make equity partner status within law firms. With such tough standards and a lack of incentives present for female professionals in this field, many talented women may feel discouraged from pursuing their dream career path as a lawyer.
“Women are dissatisfied with the culture in law firms, the tyranny of the billable hour, and their inability to balance personal life and the kind of hours that law firms want them to work,” According to Cheryl Stephens, vice-chair of the Canadian Bar Association’s National Law Practice and Technology Section.
In 2007, The Opt-In Project united over 900 people from various industries such as investment banks, accounting firms, and law practices to discuss how women could stay in senior roles. As Sweeney commented:
To create a healthier work-life balance, the following proposals were recommended: emphasizing productivity rather than billing hours; allowing flexible schedules without repercussions, and sending automated notifications in emails entering or leaving office systems after 7 pm on Fridays. “Are you sure you want to send this message or can it wait until Monday morning?” On-site childcare and webcasting to maintain workplace connectivity for remote employees are two strategies that can ensure worker productivity.
It is evidently evident that a substantial shift needs to take place in the legal profession, and cultivating an environment of greater flexibility appears to be necessary. Now, while there are some areas of the law that cannot be altered, technology is making remote work much more available. This makes it possible for female lawyers to achieve a better work-life balance since they can now manage their professional and personal lives in tandem. It may not seem like a distant dream anymore! From the evidence provided in these studies and statistics, it is obvious that law firms must make substantial changes if they want to retain their best employees.
If you want to maintain a healthy work-life balance, don’t miss the opportunity to ask for advice from Lauren Anderson – former Assistant Special Agent in Charge (Retired) of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.