What Women Want From Law Firms

“What’s it like?” he asked me.

“What’s what like?” I responded.

“To be a female lawyer and have a female secretary?”


I was a first-year associate at an established Philadelphia law firm, and he was a male client in a senior position at a large New York investment bank. His question ignored my professional status and that of my secretary. It translated, loosely, as: “What’s it like for a girl to boss around another girl?” I tried to answer politely, with a response that would not strike directly at the true meaning of his question: “I would prefer a male secretary,” I answered with a smile, “but my firm doesn’t hire those.” Perplexed, he turned and walked away.

In contrast to my early days in practice, the workplace dynamics of women, men, and minorities are now studied, measured, and questioned. Here is a case in point. Last year, I conducted a survey for the Philadelphia Bar Association. It asked women lawyers to rate the following: “I am happy at my job.” One associate responded, “Neutral,” and added this comment: “I am not happy or unhappy. I am resigned to the realities of an archaic and inefficient business model.”

Perhaps the “archaic and inefficient business model” relates to partnerships that are “disproportionately white men,” with only 23% of equity partners being female and 8% from minorities. If so, it may not be a surprise that—like the investment banker I met years ago—men remain perplexed about the experience of women in the workplace.

What You Should Know About Attrition, And Why It Matters

In many respects, the professional experiences of women and men are similar. Both have always sought interesting work and good pay, as well as the opportunity to “make a difference.” And, despite financial success, both women and men become dissatisfied when they find their work disconnected from social good. The difference is this: Women are more likely than men to take jobs in government, public interest, and other professions that serve the public. In short, a female attorney will leave her workplace—even one in which she thrives financially and professionally—if she cannot align her practice with her values and aspirations.

Many associates who quit are top attorneys.

These career decisions, and others, are reflected in attrition statistics. For instance, women law students now outnumber men two to one. What will happen to those women once they leave law school and enter the profession? Both women and minorities will quit at disproportionately higher rates than white men. The New York City Bar recently reported that voluntary attrition rates for women are 135 % higher than those for white men, and attrition rates for minorities are 150 % higher. Moreover, many associates who quit are top attorneys—the very lawyers the firm wants to keep on its partnership track. In fact, about 50 % of associate departures are unwanted by their firms.

To retain these valued associates, employers often address concerns such as salary, training, technology, diversity, and work-life balance. No doubt these specific efforts are valuable to individual attorneys and their firms. But, as proven by the data, these efforts are not enough to retain attorneys. Consequently, law firms suffer a drain in talent as well as treasure.

The Bottom Line: You’re Losing Your Shirt

The impact of associate departures is multi-dimensional. Inclusion efforts fail; diversity ratings drop; existing clients exit; potential client bases shrink. In addition, associate morale, productivity, and loyalty suffer. In response, costs to replace employees rise. And what happens to the investment that the firm made in each associate (one-on-one training, continuing education, executive coaches, dues and memberships, and more)? All of that walks out of the firm and moves, with the associate, to a new employer.

How long will firms continue to ignore attrition’s multi-million dollar costs?

Most striking, however, is the devastating impact of attrition on the bottom line. For the average associate who quits after three years, my analysis shows that she takes with her a revenue stream of $654,000. When an associate quits after five years, the revenue stream she takes is almost tripled: $1,951,000. These calculations include conservative hourly rates for New York City associates, minus all employer costs and taking into account realization rates.

With respect to highly productive lawyers, the revenue streams lost are even greater: For each high-performing associate who quits after three years, she takes with her a revenue stream of $1,072,000. When she quits after five years, she takes with her more than double that: $2,706,000.

How to Retain Top Talent: Be the Leader, Don’t Follow One

The good news is this: Firms can retain revenues, talented associates, and a diverse workplace without changing their core business model. The trick is to move beyond the retention measures mentioned above and shift your focus to the big picture. As my survey shows, law firms that do only “what the other firms are doing” are missing significant opportunities to capture the hearts, minds, and loyalty of their associates. Without those three things—hearts, minds, and loyalty—today’s mobile attorneys have no reason to remain on the job.

My survey offers a new way to think about how we practice law; a way that brings the employer and its attorneys closer to realizing shared business, professional, and social goals. It asks the questions no one else is asking—questions that stem from current and longitudinal research on career satisfaction, workplace contribution, and community connection. Consequently, the survey identifies important new data to help employers meet the challenges of today’s competitive talent market.

Five Tips to Retain Top Talent
  • Be supportive: Engage and reinforce associates often.
  • Be inclusive: Prioritize affinity groups and women’s initiatives.
  • Be transparent: Let everybody know what everybody knows.
  • Be connected: Align your values, talent team, and community.
  • Be bold: Leverage your assets to make a difference in the world.

Shining A Light: Don’t Be Afraid to Look Inside

Applying research-based assumptions, I have sought to shine a light on the “dark holes” that law firms should no longer ignore, including the experience of female lawyers in today’s workplace. For instance, respondents were given the following prompt: “I understand how my work fits into the bigger picture and is necessary to accomplish [my employer’s]larger goals.” More than 70% of respondents with exit strategies of one to two years answered, “Strongly disagree, disagree, and neutral.” For this “attrition group,” nearly three-quarters of women attorneys did not feel valued by their employers. A workplace that experiences high rates of attrition during those first couple of years needs to understand why women don’t feel like “part of the family,” and take the right steps to bring them into the fold.

Law firms have many ways to provide unique, meaningful opportunities to women and minorities, including through pro bono service. My survey tests whether existing pro bono programs provide the socially responsible connection that lawyers seek. The answer? Somewhat yes, somewhat no. These results align with, and underscore, the current and longitudinal data—which begs the question: Why not update traditional strategies using a new, more expansive view of pro bono?

Despite the robust pro bono agendas of many firms, actions that benefit society encompass more than just free legal services.

Here is one of several prompts—the responses to which validate my more expansive view of pro bono: “My employer cares about making a positive social impact and operates in a socially responsible manner.” As in the “dark hole” question above, more than 70% of respondents with exit strategies of one to two years answered, “Strongly disagree, disagree, and neutral.” This is a red flag, particularly because both firms and lawyers hold themselves out as strong, contributing members of society. It also suggests that, despite the robust pro bono agendas of many firms, actions that benefit society encompass more than just free legal services.

Notwithstanding the significance of law firm pro bono work, social responsibility is the mantra of non-lawyers as well. Many industries take it to heart, and individual companies have made corporate social responsibility integral to their operations. Law firms would be wise to do the same.

Examine not just the firm’s community ties, but also those of its attorneys.

Women, minorities, millennials, and others want to engage with leadership to help solve local and global challenges. Innovative programs will help law firms expand ongoing pro bono programs by aligning their values with socially responsible actions.

Because commitment to the local community is key for law firms and their attorneys, my survey teases apart this critical relationship. I examine not just the employer’s institutional ties to a community, but also those of its attorneys.

Philanthropy research shows that women who are responsible for a family’s charitable decisions give more generously than men who make those same decisions. Likewise, industry research shows that female lawyers care more deeply than men about the social impact of their work. Women’s commitment to social welfare and progress has not been critically assessed by law firms, despite all the research that lays it bare.

Help the Community: It Helps More Than the Community

One way to retain top legal talent is to incorporate fresh, strategic programs that engage law firms, lawyers, and the community. My survey results underscore this approach, revealing that women associates and partners are, overwhelmingly, of the same mind and heart. In answer to the prompt: “I would volunteer my time to be part of an employee team to accomplish an employer-sponsored community initiative,” 91 % of respondents answered, “Strongly agree, agree, and neutral.” Women in all “attrition groups,” as well as those who do not plan to quit, want to join their coworkers to make a difference in their community. This response is hard to ignore, and why would you?

Move out of the office and into the community with an updated purpose.

These are just a few highlights that suggest there is a road to curbing attrition that is as yet untraveled. Attorneys’ professional investments inside the firm need to be supported, recognized, and given a voice inside and outside of the firm. It is time for law firms to move out of the office, beyond traditional pro bono activities, and into the broader community with an updated, purposeful agenda.

Strategic leadership and innovative, bespoke opportunities can take you there. With a better understanding of talented female, minority, and millennial attorneys and their objectives, every law firm can update its culture to align past practices with future growth plans. When the “whole lawyer” comes to work, so do her loyalties and her revenue streams.

Why act like the investment banker—perplexed by the experience of women lawyers in the workplace? Instead, look through the eyes of your valued associates. If you invest in what your attorneys care about, you will finally understand the experience of women and minorities in the workplace—and profit from it.

About the Author

Francesca Rothseid is the principal of Francesca Rothseid Consulting and is a senior legal and nonprofit professional with more than 20 years of experience in healthcare, pharmaceuticals, general business, and nonprofit social impact organizations.

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