Too Many Senior Women Are Leaving the Profession

I often describe myself as a “unicorn” in the legal profession. I have been practicing law for more than 43 years, and I still have a very active, full-time practice. I love being a lawyer, and feel very fortunate to work on so many interesting and challenging cases on behalf of my clients and to serve as a problem solver for them. My primary practice area is antitrust law, a field that has been and continues to be overwhelmingly male. The field of antitrust turned out to be the perfect niche for me, as it involves complex factual, economic, and legal issues, affords me the opportunity to represent plaintiff classes and corporate defendants in civil and criminal cases, and enables me to learn about a wide range of industries.

I also am fortunate to have worked in two big law firms, started the first women-owned law firm in Philadelphia that concentrated in class actions and complex commercial litigation, and practiced for the past 18 years with a nationally recognized antitrust boutique. The many paths I have taken during my career have formed a mosaic that has given me both great personal satisfaction and professional fulfillment.

However, it is painfully obvious to me that my experience may be rather unique, as too few senior women lawyers remain in the profession. This observation was confirmed by the results of a new study by Stephanie Scharf and me as part of former ABA President Hilarie Bass’s groundbreaking “Initiative on Achieving Long-Term Careers for Women in Law.” Our findings demonstrate that more women lawyers who have been practicing at least 20-25 years are leaving the practice of law, particularly from private practice, at a time when, like their male counterparts, they should be in the prime of their careers in terms of business development, leadership roles and earning power.

Distressingly, although women have been graduating from law school at nearly the same rate as men for more than two decades, recent statistics show that women make up only 40% of practicing lawyers over age 40 and only 27% of lawyers over age 50. The disproportionately high rate of attrition of senior women from the profession causes an enormous vacuum of potential role models and sponsors for younger women lawyers; leaves law firms without a critical mass of senior women who can participate in the all-important management, compensation, and partnership committees, and creates a dearth of senior women to serve as first chairs at trial and leads on deals.

It is clear from our study that if meaningful and effective steps are not taken to address the exodus of senior women lawyers, the attainment of gender parity in equity partnerships will be a virtual impossibility. Indeed, the American Lawyer has estimated that, at the current glacial pace of progress (approximately 19% of women equity partners for many years), women will not achieve this goal until 2181! In fact, women lawyers are still found in far greater numbers in the ranks of associates, staff attorneys, of counsel and non-equity partner positions. The inverse pyramid for women is firmly entrenched in the vast majority of our law firms. This paradigm is simply unacceptable, and I hope that after reading this article, you will be motivated to join me in speaking out and urging your law firm leaders to make long-overdue structural changes to push for change.

Before our initiative, there had not been any systematic research to determine why so many experienced senior women are leaving the profession. Our robust study included a joint survey with ALM Intelligence of the 350 largest law firms and included male and female lawyers who had practiced for more than 20 years, as well as male and female managing partners. In addition, under the supervision and direction of Professor Joyce Sterling, we convened national focus groups of partners, managing partners and senior women who had left the legal profession. We also undertook the first-of-its-kind career trajectory survey of male and female alumni of several law schools, 20 years after their graduation.

Our findings, which were released in August, reported some of the myriad reasons for the stampede by senior women lawyers out of the profession.

First, we found a significant disparity between how well law firm leaders think they are doing in achieving progress for women lawyers, and how women in law firms perceive the success of those attempts. While 79% of managing partners believe that their firm has made gender diversity a priority, only 54% of women lawyers concur. Likewise, while 71% of managing partners believe their firm has a culture that promotes women into equity partnerships, only 47% of women agree. Managing partners believe they are doing a far better job at promoting gender diversity, advancing women into equity partnership and leadership roles, and retaining women than the women lawyers with whom they work think they are doing. This significant disconnect demonstrates that law firm leaders’ efforts and initiatives are not accomplishing as much as they believe, and much more needs to be done.

Law Practice Magazine Survey

This “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” divide at law firms carries over to the very different experiences of male and female lawyers.

Shockingly, almost one-half of our female respondents reported that they had received unwanted sexual contact. As if that was not alarming enough, 74% of the women reported receiving demeaning communications compared to just 8% of men. Moreover, 63% of senior women reported being perceived as less committed to their career, in contrast to only 2% of men. These stark differences lead to very different levels of satisfaction between men and women lawyers, and create an inhospitable atmosphere where senior women feel alienated, and believe that their efforts and abilities are not sufficiently recognized or appreciated. As a result, they lack confidence in their firms’ leadership to address and ameliorate the issues they confront, and vote with their feet by leaving their firms.

Contributing to this dissatisfaction by women lawyers is the persistent pay gap between male and female lawyers, which increases with seniority. The reasons for this disparity include a lack of a critical mass of women on compensation committees; inequitable client succession decisions that enable retiring male partners to bequeath their clients to their male protégés; referrals of matters by male partners to their male colleagues, and gender inequality in business development and marketing opportunities. Another reason for this gender pay gap is that women partners receive only 80% of the amount of origination credit given to men.

Compounding these law firm inequalities is the fact that women are less likely to be chosen by clients to serve as lead partners on matters. For example, a 2017 ACRITAS study found that women were chosen to act in lead roles only 17% of the time by male clients.

The end result is that, on average, male partners make approximately $300,000 more per year than female partners. According to a 2017 survey by Major, Lindsey & Africa, female partners made only 69 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts.

One of the most important and striking findings of our research is the difference in satisfaction between men and women partners (69% v. 44%) with respect to the method used by their firm to determine compensation. Equally significant, 53% of the women surveyed believed that gender bias played a role in the denial of a salary increase or bonus. Gender bias was also attributed to women as a reason for being denied advancement opportunities; missing out on desirable assignments, and a lack of access to sponsors.

Our findings are consistent with other research explaining why women are under-represented in the C-Suite and in the boardroom, and are far less likely to receive promotions to senior managers. A recent Harvard Business Review study examined men and women at a large multinational firm where women made up 40% of the entry-level workforce, but only 20% of those at the two highest seniority levels at the organization. (This is pretty similar to the female associate/partner ratios at many law firms.) Employees were asked to wear sensors to track whether women had less time with managers or were not as proactive in interfacing with senior leadership. The study found that women were having the same types and numbers of interactions that men in the organization were having. The difference was that despite their efforts and equal access, women were still not being promoted or advanced at the same rate as their male colleagues.

The Harvard Business Review study and our study concerning senior women lawyers debunk the myth that, in order to advance and receive promotions, women must “lean in” more, become more ambitious, or receive special training. Instead, it is clear that implicit gender bias is deeply ingrained in the culture of law firms and businesses, and often reinforces gender stereotypes. Instead of focusing on initiatives aimed at “fixing” or “improving” the women, a change to the culture of the organization is needed, with buy-in and accountability on the part of leadership, so as to create a level playing field for women.

We will be releasing a comprehensive report concerning our research. The data will be used to develop best practices and strategies to enhance the retention of senior women lawyers and ensure their fair and equitable treatment with respect to the attainment of equity partnerships, real positions of power and leadership, and increased compensation.

We are at a watershed moment. Women lawyers, like other women across America, are more galvanized and engaged than ever before. Armed with this research, let’s act with a real sense of urgency to eliminate the barriers and obstacles that continue to confront senior women lawyers and lead to their premature departure from the profession.

About the Author

Roberta “Bobbi” Liebenberg is a senior partner at Fine, Kaplan and Black. She twice served as chair of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession and is the co-chair of the ABA Presidential Initiative on Achieving Long-Term Careers for Women in Law.

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