'Death by a Thousand Cuts': Why Are Women Leaving Big Law?
November 18, 2019
A survey of more than 1,200 senior attorneys found that women leave Big Law because of law firm operational policies and implicit bias.
By Dylan Jackson
“Walking Out the Door: The Facts, Figures and Future of Experienced Women Lawyers in Private Practice,” is the result of a study by the ABA and ALM Intelligence, the research arm of ALM, that surveyed nearly 1,300 attorneys in the 500 largest firms in the United States. They found that more than 90% of men and women reported satisfaction in the substantive aspects of their practice such as intellectual challenge and level of responsibility. But it found large gender gaps when respondents were asked about their firm’s operational policies, including opportunities for advancement and workplace diversity.
The study found that only 50% of women are satisfied with the recognition of their work as opposed to 70% of men. About 45% of women surveyed said they’re satisfied with their opportunities for advancement, while 69% of men reported satisfaction.
Women also reported high levels of overt gender discrimination. For example, 82% of women reported they have been mistaken for a low-level employee based on their gender.
Taken as a whole, the study suggests that women leave Big Law because of a systematic culture of bias, said study co-author Roberta Liebenberg, a senior partner at Fine, Kaplan and Black.
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“I call those findings death by a thousand cuts,” Liebenberg said. “It’s not one thing, but an accumulation of experiences they believe are different because of their gender.”
The study surveyed 1,262 attorneys and managing partners with at least 15 years of experience among 500 of the largest U.S. firms. Of the respondents, 70% were women and 30% were men. Half of those surveyed were equity partners with the remaining respondents evenly distributed between non-equity partners and lawyers who were of counsel. Only 28 managing partners responded to the survey.
While women account for between 45% and 50% of law school graduating classes, they accounted for only 20% of law firm equity partners in 2018, indicating a high attrition rate for women attorneys.
But when survey respondents were asked how well their firm was doing in the advancement and promotion of women attorneys, 88% of men said that gender diversity is widely acknowledged as a firm priority. But only 54% of women said this was the case. And although 79% of men said their firms have succeeded in promoting women into equity partnership, just 48% of women stated their firms had succeeded in doing so.
“The data suggests that firms may not understand how their own people are viewing the policy and practices that they are implementing with respect to advancing women,” said study co-author Stephanie Scharf, a partner with the women-owned firm Scharf Banks Marmor and chair of the ABA’s commission on women in the profession.
These disparities between lived experience and perception are why Scharf and Liebenberg believe that many firms need to analyze their own diversity data. They also should look at their origination and compensation structures, as much of the dissatisfaction that arises from these can easily be remedied, they said.
The study recommends that firms move away from an opaque “black box” compensation system to a more open model, or provide business development opportunities to men and women equally.
“If women are not getting the business development opportunities, they aren’t getting the business,” said Liebenberg. “If they aren’t getting the business, they aren’t getting the origination credit which affects compensation.”
The report puts forth seven solutions, including developing a strategy, setting hard targets, assessing the impact of firm diversity policies and affirming firm leadership’s commitment to gender diversity.
The full report can be downloaded for free on ALM’s website.