New Strategies For Engaging and Retaining Women Lawyers

More research is needed to better understand how to retain and engage women lawyers. If you’re a practicing lawyer (male or female), please help by taking a short, 10-minute survey and pass this article and survey along to others.

Law firms aspire to build thriving organizations that attract, engage and retain the best people of all demographics and backgrounds. Diversity and inclusion initiatives have made headway toward this goal, but the stagnation of multiple measures of gender parity suggest that it’s time for greater innovation and experimentation. Scientific research in leadership, management and organizational behavior offers some ideas. It suggests firm strategies that may boost the work engagement and retention of women lawyers.

Why does an article addressing gender diversity appear in the Attorney Well-Being column, you might ask? As you’ll see below, meaningful work, high-quality relationships, intrinsic aspirations and work engagement are connected to this issue—and also are core concepts of work-related well-being.

Law Firms Have Room to Improve on Gender Parity Metrics

The higher up the pyramid you look in the nation’s largest law firms, the fewer women you’ll find. In the largest 200 law firms, only 18% of equity partners and 29% of non-equity partners are women (Scharfl, Liebenberg, & Amalfe, 2014). A 2015 report by the National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL) found that progress on advancing women to equity partner is at a virtual standstill—changing little over the last 10 years. Similarly, little growth has occurred in the percentage of women in top management positions.

According to the NAWL, this shortage of women in law firms’ upper echelons cannot be explained by a pipeline deficit. Something is happening that culls out women along the path of law school graduation, early career positions, and equity partnership and management.

Attrition of women lawyers is one big obstacle to improving gender diversity at the top. When asked recently to identify major obstacles for women advancing to equity partner, 31% of the nation’s largest law firms said attrition. Nearly all (94%) reported that retaining women lawyers was a problem for the firm.

Current Diversity/Inclusion Strategies Are Incomplete

The reasons why women leave law firms are complex. Firms efforts to retain women often do not match this complexity.

Work-Life Balance Policies. For example, firms’ retention efforts largely focus on “work-life balance.” And such initiatives are aimed almost entirely at giving time to working mothers—for example, through reduced or flexible schedules and family leave. Nearly all large firms (98%) have formal or informal policies allowing lawyers to work part-time schedules, according to NALP). Continued attrition and the low usage rates of these policies, however, suggest that firms have more work to do. The issues relating to time scarcity are important but too narrow.

A recent survey of 400 U.S. lawyers who have left traditional law firms found a variety of factors that contributed to turnover of women lawyers. Some of the top reasons given for leaving were: wanted to spend more time with family (18.3 %), toxic work culture (18.3%), job demands too much time (17.6%), lack of flexibility regarding hours (9.6%), job was too stressful (7.3%), work was not meaningful (4.7%), and felt disrespected (4%). This reflects that, while time-related issues were very important, not all related to family concerns. Also, what could be characterized as cultural issues (toxic culture, stress, lack of meaning, disrespect) played a role for many (34.3%). This supports the view that time for family should not be the sole focus of women’s initiatives.

Women’s Initiatives. As part of their retention efforts, most larger firms also have women’s affinity groups. But the 2015 NAWL report deemed these initiatives as “woefully underfunded” and lacking clear goals and missions. The report found that they focus significantly on developing women’s skills, which wrongly assumes and communicates that women themselves are the foremost barrier to their own achievement.

Diversity Training. Most firms (80%) also provide some type of diversity-related training, and 74% provide training specifically on unconscious bias. Two recent law firm studies underscore the continued importance of such efforts.

In the first study, researchers found that law firm partners with a specific political ideology awarded significantly smaller bonuses to their female subordinates, even when controlling for several relevant factors. The second study found that male partners with that same political ideology had higher rates of gender inequality in training, promotions, and turnover of subordinates. The researchers discuss the entrenched gender stereotypes that may explain these results.

While all of these strategies remain important, the stagnation of progress toward gender parity suggests that they are incomplete.

Organizational Research Can Aid Innovation for Diversity/Inclusion Strategies

To improve their retention strategies, firms could benefit from greater innovation. Research in the organizational sciences offers some ideas. This research emphasizes that optimal functioning and performance results from an interaction between an individual and her context. An individual’s skills, strengths and resources are important. But so is the organization’s social context—perhaps more so.

Most firms do not pay enough attention to the latter. This is a mistake. Think about the importance of context in this way: We all can agree that sharks are strong and fierce. But if you throw a shark in a fresh water lake, all of that fierceness disintegrates. It’ll literally sink to the bottom. People are the same way. If their environment doesn’t fit, they’ll sink.

In fact, organizational research strongly suggests that men and women do not necessarily thrive in the same type of environment. Since the law firm model was primarily constructed by men for men, it may be that firms have been molded to the shape of men’s motivational patterns. It may be that the high attrition of women lawyers can be explained in part by firm leadership styles and work climates that are less likely to satisfy women’s psychological needs and motivational patterns. In other words, women may be sharks stuck in tanks filled with the wrong water.

Gender Differences in Motivational Patterns

Multiple studies reflect gender differences in, for example, motivation patterns, goals, relationship-orientation, impact of supervisor support and more. They suggest that re-shaping leader behaviors could help curb the turnover rate of women lawyers.


Transformational Leadership, Meaningfulness and Intrinsic Aspirations

For example, research reflects that supervisors’ leadership style significantly influences followers’ motivation, behaviors and well-being. A leadership style called transformational leadership (TFL) may play a particularly important role in cultivating work environments that match women’s motivational patterns.

To motivate followers to strive for high achievement, transformational leaders view their relationship with followers as more than a business exchange of labor for money. They are inspiring role models; articulate a vision that fosters meaningfulness and optimism; encourage followers to think for themselves; and seeks to understand and address each individual’s needs, abilities, and aspirations. Who wouldn’t like managers like this? And, in fact, TFL is associated with higher work engagement for both men and women. Work engagement for women has been associated with greater persistence in tough work environments (i.e., engineering).

Similarly, research reflects that TFL influences career satisfaction more for women than men. One reason this might be so is that TFL is particularly effective at cultivating the experience of meaningfulness in work. Multiple studies reflect that, while meaningful work is important to both men and women, women are more likely than men to find their work unsatisfying and to leave if they don’t perceive it as meaningful and intrinsically rewarding. This is consistent with research finding that women are more likely to make career choices influenced by relationships and self-fulfillment.

These findings also align with evidence of gender differences in intrinsic goal orientation. Intrinsic goals are those that are inherently rewarding to pursue, such as self-acceptance, being fulfilled, and having a meaningful life; close and caring relationships with others; and helping to make the world a better place. Extrinsic goals include financial success, image and fame/popularity. Research indicates that, compared with men, women place more importance on intrinsic goals relative to extrinsic ones.

Similar findings have been found among lawyers. For example, a recent study of 6,000 lawyers by Larry Krieger and Kennon Sheldon found that women had more intrinsic values than men . Similarly, in a 2004 study, researchers found that women lawyers’ plans to leave their law jobs were more strongly influenced by a lack of intrinsic rewards. They also observed “striking” gender differences in motives for attending law school: men are more likely to say a desire to make money was a big factor in their decision. Women are more likely to identify altruistic reasons for becoming a lawyer, such as serving the underprivileged.

The above suggests that cultures that tout profitability as the primary organizational purpose and reward systems that focus almost exclusively on extrinsic rewards may be better suited to the motivational patterns of men. It is not that women don’t care about money. They do. And fairness in compensation is critical. A perceived lack of fairness in compensation decisions will kill everyone’s motivation. But research indicates that money buys women less happiness than men. Broadening a firm’s values and reward systems to include a greater focus on fostering meaningfulness and satisfying intrinsic aspirations may be particularly beneficial for women. See my article in the November 2016 edition of Law Practice Today for a few ideas for cultivating work-related meaningfulness.

High-Quality Relationships with Direct Leaders

One way that transformational leaders influence followers is by developing close bonds with them, and understanding and supporting their needs and goals. Evidence indicates that these types of behaviors may have a particularly positive impact on women.

For example, a recent leadership study found that having a loyal, friendly relationship with one’s supervisor was positively related to job embeddedness (the collection of factors that anchor people to their jobs) for women but not for men. The researchers concluded that men and women perceive relationships with supervisors “through qualitatively different lenses.”

That study’s findings were consistent with other studies indicating that, generally, women set a higher value on good social relations and rapport with managers than men. Additionally, women place greater value than men on gratitude and appreciation communicated by their direct leaders. Further, research has found that a perceived lack of supervisory support is more important to turnover intentions among women than men.

These findings align with general social science evidence that women tend to prefer close, caring bonds and reciprocal relationships. Men tend to develop large networks of less-intimate connections and place a greater value on power and social status. Accordingly, women and men are likely to benefit from different things in their relationship with their supervisors.

A woman’s inability to connect in a satisfactory way with her direct manager could generate feelings of social rejection and have negative consequences. Social rejection contributes to self-regulation failure, which can trigger anti-social and self-defeating behavior such as procrastination, reduced stamina, and depression. Research shows that a sense of connection and belonging is important for psychological health and performance.


In her 2006 book, Ending the Gauntlet: Removing Barriers to Women’s Success in the Law, Lauren Stiller Rikleen argued that poor law firm leadership has contributed to the problem of high turnover of women lawyers. Recent leadership and organizational research provides guidance on addressing concerns raised by Rikleen. It indicates that leadership training and innovations in firm practices might rejuvenate firm’s diversity and inclusion efforts. Enriching the organizational environment in ways that are better tailored to motivational patterns of both women and men could help firms make more progress on the retention and advancement of women lawyers. As American scientist Sylvia Early said: “Sharks are beautiful animals, and if you’re lucky enough to see lots of them, that means that you’re in a healthy ocean.”

About the Author

Anne Brafford is the chair of the Law Practice Division’s Attorney Well-Being Committee. She is a co-founder of Aspire, an educational and consulting firm focused on lawyer thriving, is a former partner at Morgan Lewis, and is a doctoral student and teaching assistant in positive organizational psychology. Anne can be reached at

Send this to a friend