Women Are “Staying” in Droves

Almost 80% of women who leave law firm practice end up staying in or returning to the workforce; and more than 50% of them stay in the legal profession. In other words, female attorneys are not leaving either the workforce or the profession to be stay at home moms. But they are opting out of law firm practice at far greater rates than men. As a result, although men and women have been graduating from law school at equal rates for the past 15 years, women still only account for 17% of the partners in law firms. Those are some of the key findings of a new study just completed by the MIT Workplace Center . Robert Ambrogi of the Law.Com Blog Network writes about the study here .

Yesterday, I attended a reception at the Federal Courthouse in Boston where Mona Harrington of MIT did a great job of presenting the results of her research. Judge Nancy Gertner, who was a major catalyst behind the study, and Lauren Rikleen, past president of the Boston Bar Association and author of a terrific book on how law firms can begin to address the lack of female advancement in the legal profession (Ending the Gauntlet: Removing Barriers to Women’s Success in the Law) also gave articulate presentations which quickly went to the heart of the issue (i.e. that law firms can do a lot more to promote the advancement of women.)

Afterwards, I received an e-mail message from Sheila Statlender, a clinical psychologist in Newton, Massachusetts who sits with me on the BBA Standing Committee on Work/Life Balance. She also attended the session and had some interesting things to say. Here are some excerpts from an e-mail she sent to the members of our committee:

Findings which indicate that female attorneys are not opting out, but rather finding work outside of law firms, and in astonishingly high percentages at every stage (associate, partner, etc.) provide important documentation, and refutation for those claiming that women really are just “choosing” to be stay-at-home moms.

OK, I admit it – at first I thought – this is not new news. We’ve been hearing it and saying it for quite a while. Women aren’t progressing in their career paths and are earning significantly less than their male counterparts. “Opaque” discrimination now makes it harder to identify factors such as less desirable work assignments, inferior mentoring and tougher challenges with regard to business development. This doesn’t seem so much a wake up call, as it does a signal from the “snooze alarm:” we’ve heard it before, and now it’s blaring again. But we also know that change happens slowly, especially in large, powerful and at heart conservative organizations (like law firms). So I say bravo to those of you who continue to reset the alarm, letting it blast, rather than simply shutting it off.
I do have a question for Lauren especially: you really are calling for in essence a revolution in the legal profession: an overhaul of how firms handle compensation, what kinds of professional practice and activities will get acknowledged in terms of the bottom line, and along with this, a necessary shift in the values which underlie these practices. What kind of response are you getting from your audiences, from firms, from individuals? Is anyone hearing and responding? Can you give us some hope here?
I couldn’t help but think, as I listened to the presentations yesterday, of comparisons with other professional fields. Physicians, for example (female and male alike) are standing by as more and more of their professional freedoms are slipping away. Health insurers are dictating reimbursement and even basic medical practice. It has occurred to me that many professionals are in the position that factory workers found themselves in in previous decades – only factory workers formed unions and were able to go on strike. They found ways to take back or establish power (ok, maybe I’m idealizing a bit). Can anything comparable be done in the current arena(s)?
Since I am sharing my morning musings and subjecting you all to some stream of consciousness (except for those of you who may have had the wisdom to hit the “delete” button already 🙂 I’ll take it one step further. I fantasized about a walk out of female attorneys, hopefully accompanied by their male supporters – perhaps only an hour or two in length, to protest current conditions and to express support for the ideas/strategies proposed at yesterday’s briefing. Or an all day conference, a sort of pre-planned walkout, filled with workshops on getting better asssignments, business development, the work-life continuum (I agree with Lauren that “balance” is not a realistic term!), self-care, etc. – not held on the weekend, but pointedly during the workday.

Leave a Comment

twenty − 7 =