Why Are We Leaving And Can We Turn the Exodus Around?
I recently had the pleasure of joining the Women in Law Leadership Forum Panel. Sitting on the panel with me was Linda Chanow, co-author of the study entitled “In Their Own Words – Experienced Women Lawyers Explain Why They Are Leaving Their Law Firms and Their Profession”. You may also want to check out the previous report “Walking Out the Door”. I owe a debt of gratitude to Linda and her co-author Joyce Sterling for researching and publishing on this subject so near and dear to me and Life in Law.
The focus of the study, produced for the ABA, was on the factors that influence experienced women lawyers to remain in practice, transition to different career paths within the profession or leave the profession altogether. Significantly the study focused on women with 15 or more years of practice under their belt. One of the respondents in the study was quoted as saying: “issues of inequality will be greatly reduced, and perhaps disappear, on the day that men recognize that something is wrong when they enter a room at the firm and do not see a substantial number of women lawyers”. That statement resonates.
I will not spend a lot of time focusing on the multitude of reasons women leave the practice of law because I want to focus on the recommendations and path forward. Suffice it to say the reasons include those most of us are already thinking about before you even read further in this blog. Women love the intellectual challenge related to the practice of law but are stuck trying to survive in environments that do not recognize or reward their contributions. At the base of the frustration is the demoralizing fact that compensation for equal work remains unfair. But that is not the only disparity as promotions and distribution of work play a role as well. The disparity is even wider for women of colour who leave the practice of law at a higher rate than their white counterparts.
In addition to the above, I specifically want to discuss one factor driving the exodus worthy of individual mention. That single factor is the hyper-competitive work environment that erodes culture and collegiality and drives a sense of isolation. I raise this factor independently because it is true and is unnecessary. It is my opinion that if we could build consistently collaborative cultures within the practice of law we would keep more women and men in the practice overall. We need to find a way to collectively support each other as colleagues. We cannot be in competition with the very partners and associates that we should be turning to for either advice or guidance. I believe, maybe naively, that just this one shift will help to secure the path for all lawyers, women and men.
The study offers 11 recommendations. Each recommendation can help to drive change and really need to be the focus for each of us as individuals and for our firms or workplace.
- We must continue the narrative – we must never shy away from discussing these issues.
- Develop a strategy and establish a timeline – firms need to acknowledge the issue and build a strategy to keep women practicing law.
- Track your data and use gender metrics and statistics – this will give you a clearer picture of where you are at.
- Affirm leadership’s commitment to take action to promote gender diversity – we need committed leaders.
- Own the business case for diversity – seems obvious but we are nowhere near understanding how important women are to the diverse mindset of a workplace.
- Ensure there is a critical mass of women partners on committees.
- Assess the impact of firm policies and practices on women lawyers.
- Implement implicit bias and sexual harassment training for all partners.
- Increase lateral hiring of women partners.
- Provide resources to relieve pressures from family obligations that women more often face – there is no doubt COVID has changed our mindset around work arrangements.
- Be flexible and support changing practices.
- Affirmatively build camaraderie – as I said above I believe this single shift will move us in the right direction.
As a co-founder and LiL blogger I have always been focused on our path forward and I love that Linda and her colleague Joyce succinctly provide such a path. That is not to say it will be easy but we need to continue to advocate and draw lines in the sand so that every generation of lawyers benefit from a diverse and inclusive practice.
About the Author
Kim Jakeman, QC is a partner at Harper Grey and – in case this is your first time here – also the co-founder of Life in Law. Not only is Kim a skilled mediator, she also maintains a busy dual practice focused mainly on litigation in the area of medical malpractice, and regulatory work involving professionals facing disciplinary proceedings before a variety of regulatory bodies. Kim is almost as passionate about biking, her new love of surfing, and working out as she is about supporting women in the legal profession. A master of her own balancing act, when Kim isn’t busy with work, she spends coveted time with her family and friends.