Why women are leaving law and how to fix it

DraftWise Team
September 5, 2023

As lawyers continue to debate about the continued use of billable hours, its effects on women legal professionals are becoming more apparent. This is only part of a larger issue of inequalities women face in the legal industry. According to a 2022 Legal Profile by the American Bar Association (ABA), it found that 38% of all lawyers are women. But while the numbers are inching up, less than 30% of women are in leadership roles at law firms.

On top of all of this, there’s the gender pay gap. It’s well known that women lawyers are being paid less than men. Women make only 83 cents compared to a man's dollar. When you add in the number of billable hours and non-billable hours women must work (which they’re not compensated for), especially during the pandemic, the numbers are staggering. These are among the many reasons attrition rates among women in law are high.  

Let’s take a deeper look as to why women are leaving Big Law and how billable hours may play a role in it, as well as what steps firms can take to ensure the success of their women employees.

An Uneven Playing Field

Women lawyers face a number of obstacles in their careers. They often have to navigate highly competitive, toxic environments that favor their male colleagues. In the ABA’s report, In Their Own Words: Experienced Women Explain Why They Are Leaving Their Firms and the Profession, women respondents and interviewees report several incidents of sexist and racist behavior in the workplace. Many of these incidents involve ignorant assumptions made by their male employers and associates about their family responsibilities. Women of color face the worst biases, from being mistaken for holding entry-level positions such as administrative staff to having coworkers feel threatened by their success.  

Due to such discrimination, women feel isolated in what often seems like a “boys’ club” at their law firms. The lack of representation of women in higher-up positions doesn’t help either. According to research conducted by Law.com surveying the top U.K. law firms, women make up over 58 percent of trainees compared to men. This number starts to fall after they reach three years PQE, ultimately dropping dramatically to 27 percent once they hit partner level. If women are not able to see someone like them in top roles and must overcome greater hurdles to get there, then it’s no surprise why retention rates among them are so low.

Women Are Doing The Work - But For Much Less

In an already stressful environment, women in Big Law are often given a heavy workload, both at work and at home. It’s work that they’re not always compensated for, made worse by the gender pay gap. In a 2021 McKinsey report, women took on extra hours of work before and during the pandemic, in addition to their normal job responsibilities. However, tackling more tasks doesn’t necessarily result in promotions, nor does it lead to salary increases.

So how do billable hours play into this? For starters, the billable hour model has been utilized over the years as a way to measure success at law firms. The more hours a lawyer can bill, the greater the chance they’re seen as successful. However, it’s been argued that this model can have negative impacts on lawyers, particularly women. In comparison to men, women are disproportionately impacted due to multiple factors, with family responsibilities being cited the most. Due to this, many women find themselves having to make schedule adjustments or change careers/career paths altogether.

Along with having to maintain billable hours, women are often tasked with work outside of what’s billable in order to receive compensation. Unfortunately, not all of this work is compensated, nor is it always seen as valuable by law firms. In her article for Bloomberg Law, Akima Paul Lambert, a litigation partner at Hogen Lovells in London, writes that while her firm recognized the value in the extra work she did, other firms that she polled did not. This is troubling, as internal efforts benefit firms and other legal organizations greatly.

Steps Firms Can Take

Women contribute tremendously to the legal industry. Here are just some ways that firms can create more fair standards for their women employees:

  • Realigning firm values and policy – this is one of the steps that Lambert suggests in her article. She writes that the extra work women lawyers do is not only real work but can be “quantifiable and measurable.” Efforts such as DEI initiatives should be easily accessible by key performance indicators, especially to see if both clients and employees choose your firm because of such values and the unseen work put into these initiatives.
  • Pay women what they’re worth – this is a big one, considering the gender pay gap we mentioned earlier. Women must be compensated for the work they do, whether that work is already part of their mandatory duties or they do them voluntarily. They must also be paid the same amount as their male colleagues. Additionally, women should be given equal opportunities to advance in their firms and careers as men do. There should be an equal level of payoff for doing the same amount of work as their male colleagues, including (but not limited to) more promotions, raises/bonuses, and being brought on to help with important projects.
  • Create a safe work environment – sexual harassment and discrimination are serious issues for women not just in law, but in other fields as well. Movements such as #MeToo have created more awareness and progress regarding these experiences. However, there’s still plenty left to be done, especially when it comes to accountability. Firms can make the workplace less hostile and more supportive in numerous ways. For starters, firm leaders need to not only become aware of these issues but must be devoted to taking action. Their policies/procedures should reflect this, too. An article from Practus, LLP also suggests that firms hire women in HR and/or DEI roles to better communicate workplace issues and discrepancies.
  • Both birthing and non-birthing parents should take paid leave – in a 2019 New York Times article, it was reported that men today are just as likely to request time off to take care of family responsibilities as women are. However, they’re less likely to take leave than women if it’s not paid, and even if it is, they take off for shorter periods of time despite having more access to paid time off than women. Part of the issue is that of traditional gender roles, where men are expected to provide financial support for their families, while women are expected to care for them. This poses a few problems for women. It sets an unrealistic expectation women shouldn’t take their full leave, and that those who do aren’t serious about their work. This attitude deepens the gender pay gap and hinders women’s career advancements.
  • Work from home and the need for flexible hours – In conjunction with the idea of paid leave for women, the hours they actually work need to be more flexible. During the height of the pandemic, many had to adapt to working online as opposed to going into the office. For many women who are the primary caregivers in their families, this allowed them to focus on both their home and work lives. But as pandemic restrictions continue to be lifted and more people return to in-person work, women are yet again feeling the pressure to choose between home and career. While remote work wasn’t always smooth sailing for women, it showed that flexible hours and work arrangements can provide some relief to women who struggle to balance both their jobs and domestic life without having to sacrifice one for the other. A Catalyst study found that about 32 percent of women who could work remotely were less likely to leave their jobs within the next year compared to those who couldn’t. This Vox article lists the ways in which remote work can be made fair for women, ranging from subsidized child care to promotions.

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