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Why Do Experienced Women Lawyers Leave Biglaw? Why Do We Care?

Yesterday, the ABA released a report entitled Walking Out the Door: The Facts, Figures and Future of Experienced Women Lawyers in Private Practice.  Focused on the perspective of women with 15 years or more experience in the nation’s 350 largest firms, the report seeks to answer the question “why do experienced women lawyers leave biglaw.” To which I must respond with my own question: why the f*** do we care? 

By my rough count, approximately 100,000 lawyers are employed at the nation’s top 350 firms. That’s barely 8 percent of the 1.3 million lawyers in the United States.  Yet somehow, Hilarie Bass – former ABA President – chose the problem of women retention at biglaw as a higher priority than “critical issues of wellness, the immigration crisis, and declining bar passage rates,” as explained in the foreword to the report.  

Focusing on gender equality at biglaw is not just an overly narrow project, but a shortsighted one as well. With Big Four Accounting Firms now competing head on with Biglaw and efforts to eliminate restrictions on outside ownership, Biglaw as we know it may soon cease to exist.  If that’s the case, why is the ABA studying ways to help women advance in an antiquated business model instead of identifying future opportunities where women can lead? I said it a dozen years ago, but I’ll say it again: women fighting for equality at biglaw are behind the times.

Of course, what’s most annoying about the report is what I’ve harped on time and again: he ABA’s persistent failure to recognize the role of women-owned law firms  to advancing gender equality and diversity in the profession. Not only is the omission of women owned firms from the discussion of women lawyers in private practice incredibly insulting to those of us women who own and operate our own shops, but reference to the experience of women owned firms might help inform the dialogue on how women can advance at large firms.

For example, the ABA Report predictably found that women at Biglaw are more frequently mistaken for lower level employees, subject to demeaning jokes and perceived as less committed than their male counterparts. Women law firm owners – myself included (just confused with being the court reporter last week) – put up with this nonsense all the time yet somehow, we manage to overcome it to build profitable, influential and successful law firms. Can our experience be replicated in Biglaw? Or is there something inherently transformative about the power of ownership that enables women law firm owners to thrive and overcome obstacles that otherwise set women at big law firms back? I don’t know the answer to that – but maybe it’s something the ABA should be investigating instead of serving up the usual pablum of solutions like implementation of bias and harassment training, placing women partners on key committees and affirming the commitment to gender equality. 

The other area where the report falls short in my view is that it fails to address the extent to which women already in power at Biglaw are helping junior women to advance. Somewhat ironically, I noted that Hilarie Bass defended her former firm against a discrimination suit by a former female attorney even in the face of an EEOC Finding of reasonable cause to support classified claims of gender discrimination in compensation.  Yet having failed the women at the firm where she worked, Bass now takes other firms to task. I wonder how many other female partners at Biglaw similarly sell their female colleagues down the river.

By contrast, many women law firm owners actively support and lift each other up.  Women law firm owners seek out and hire other women and generously offer support and mentorship to other female lawyers. Take a visit to nearly any women-owned law firm Facebook group or organization and you’ll see hundreds of “you go, girl!” and other congratulatory remarks anytime a member shares good news. Likewise, women within these groups refer business to each other: in an informal poll of one of my Facebook groups, I discovered that at least 50 members had received referrals valued at $2500 or more from other group members. Can big firms possibly follow this model? Again – don’t know the answer because that rather obvious option (women supporting women) wasn’t covered in the report either.

As this decade draws to a close, the legal profession stands on the cusp of exciting opportunities enabled by technologic, economic and social changes sweeping at a rapid pace. As women, we can look backwards longingly at archaic institutions built by male lawyers for male lawyers and try to wriggle into a tiny seat at the mahogany conference room tables that themselves have become antiques. Or we can set our sights on the future and identify opportunities that we can own. I know which direction I’m taking – it’s the one that’s propelled me throughout my career. Who else is in?