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Countering the Trend of Women Leaving the Practice of Law at the Height of their Careers

On Behalf of | Jul 2, 2018 | Firm News

Written by Lisa Ross

According to American Bar Association (“ABA”) research,[1] many women are leaving the legal profession in record numbers at what should be the height of their careers.  Although women enter the legal profession in numbers equivalent to men, and outnumber men in law school,[2] a process of attrition occurs over the years.  Women comprise only 23% of partners and 19% of equity partners in law firms.[3]  Women are leaving law at the time in their careers when they should be at the peak of their experience, value, and success to their employer.[4]  The ABA finds this phenomenon so troubling that it has undertaken an initiative to understand why women are leaving the legal profession, and reverse that trend.[5]

Preliminary ABA research shows that women tend to leave the profession for several major reasons:

  • Work/life balance
  • Unconscious bias; and
  • Pay gap.[6]

Other research sources cite law firms’ toxic environment and a lack of training and mentoring.[7] Women also leave firms when they see longer partnership tracks and requirements for larger books of business to protect the profits of partners at the firms’ top.[8]

I read about the ABA initiative several months ago and have been pondering writing about this trend. When my managing partner asked me to write a blog for publication July 2, 2018, I knew this piece was “meant to be.”  July 2, 2018 is my thirty-sixth anniversary with the Firm.

It takes a lot to stay with a law firm for thirty-six years.  I used to tell my friends that I just didn’t like change.  It really was a lot more.

Birch Horton was my second job out of law school.  I served as an Assistant Attorney General representing the Alaska Public Utilities Commission in Anchorage Alaska for four years.  I joined Birch Horton in 1982 to develop a public utility practice.  I am a native Washingtonian, and was able to move home, as well as maintain my beloved Alaska ties, by joining the firm’s Washington, DC office.  Here, I represent a wide range of clients, both national and Alaska-based, in the areas of energy and telecommunications. My clients range from a tiny Alaska Native Village Corporation for St. Paul Island in the Bering Sea that owns four rural Alaska electric utilities to a private equity firm based in New York City that is investigating investments in Alaska energy infrastructure.

In Birch Horton, I have found a firm with a culture consistent with my personal values.  Attorneys don’t fight over taking credit for clients.  Attorneys share credits and client responsibility with younger partners to help them develop their practices.  We work together to promote one another with clients and support each individual attorney’s client relationships.  The quality of work is the firm’s number one priority, not “face time” in the office on weekends or inflated billable hours.

Working younger attorneys to the bone, just to test their mettle, is not standard fare.  In fact, the Firm encourages a healthy work-life balance.  Addressing client work in a timely manner is always essential; however, the Firm recognizes that attorneys who can meet their own personal needs, by taking the time they need to tend to their families, exercise, or pursue other interests, are more satisfied.  They are more loyal to the Firm and naturally want to work harder for clients.  Of course, there are periods where attorneys work very hard because their cases demand that level of effort.  Long days are not required, where not needed, simply as a rite of passage. Additionally, the Firm has recently made it a priority to support the ability to work remotely, making it simple to be responsive to clients while attorneys are required to be away from the office.

The Firm is a good place for women to grow, influence policies and practices, and find personal support.  Unlike other firms, women have served for long periods as managing partners and board members and proliferate among partner ranks.  There is no bias against women advancing.  To the contrary, senior partners transitioning to more modest work schedules have trained women to take over their practices.  Salaries are based on objective criteria, and younger attorneys’ salaries are not set artificially lower to prop up older partners who are no longer as productive. The Firm also offers good family-oriented benefits as part of its salary package, including paid maternity and paternity leave.

These are values that appeal particularly to women, and certainly have sustained my loyalty for thirty-six years.  I have seen the Firm evolve from its early period, where the founders dominated share ownership and control, to present, where we have successfully transitioned to a younger management team. Women have major sway in this group and advocate strongly for policies and practices consistent with fair values.

I admit, I do dislike change.  But, like other women at the Firm, I have found Birch Horton to have the values that fit my needs, in addition to very high quality legal work standards.  That appears to be rare in the law business, and I feel lucky to celebrate my thirty-sixth anniversary here.

[1] Why Women Leave the Profession, Your ABA (December 2017).

[2] Staci Zaretsky, There Are Now More Women In Law School Than Ever Before, Above the Law (Mar 7, 2018, 12:27 PM).

[3] Why Women Leave the Profession, Your ABA (December 2017).

[4] Meghan Dougherty, Why Do Women Leave the Legal Profession?, The American Bar Association (Aug 28, 2017).

[5] Id.

[6] Why Women Leave the Profession, Your ABA (December 2017).

[7] Susan Smith Blakely, Why Women Lawyers Leave Firms: Astonishing New Statistics, Ms. JD (Apr. 12, 2017).

[8] Id.