Last year, for the first time, the number of women enrolled in ranked U.S. law schools outnumbered men, after being roughly equal in previous years .
However the American Bar Association (ABA) states that women currently make up just around 36 percent of all practicing attorneys, raising the question of where the remainder of the women lawyers were.
According to the ABA, most women leave within five years of entering private practice, and just 18 percent of partners at law firms are female.
Hilarie Bass, president of the American Bar Association said one of the reasons for low percentage of women at the top is that “there aren’t that many women left at that point.”
To tackle this issue, the American Bar Association has initiated a program to understand the reasons for women at various stages of their careers leaving law firms.
Identifying Reasons Specific To Law Firms
Bass and others working on the program say they are aware that well-known reasons like discrimination, lack of work-life balance, childcare, success fatigue, sexual harassment are likely to come up . However experts are wondering if there are some unique reasons in law firm culture that discourages female advancement.
There are several anecdotes available such as older women lawyers feeling “invisible”, younger associates given less interesting and more simplistic work than men and women lawyers who struggle to meet billable targets. Many women who feel they have to work much harder to achieve the same success as men and end up becoming burnout.
However Bass noted that data and not anecdotes change perceptions.
The association is planning on developing specific recommendations in its report based on its study to retain more practicing women lawyers which is likely to be released at the association’s annual meeting held at the end of the year.
Another professional organization the Lawyers Club of San Diego, an organization dedicated to promoting women in law, is also working on the issue.
It is holding workshops this year to empower women lawyers to ask for what they deserve and to encourage veteran female attorneys to start mentoring or sponsoring younger ones.
Implicit Bias Affecting Workplace Dynamics
According to experts, to a large extent workplace gender gap regardless of the profession can be attributed to implicit bias.
Stereotypes are often so ingrained in most that they affect decisions without realizing it.
Bass said that the implicit bias affects “everything,” and can be “more challenging to drum out” as many believe they don’t have it.
In law firms, implicit bias results in a male-heavy partner track with women having to deal with less interesting work and face tougher challenge to meet billable-hours requirements, according to female attorneys.
When billable hours targets are not met, performance evaluations suffer, along with raises and chances for promotion.
Yet another reason for women to leave the profession is sexual harassment as per San Diego attorney Olga Álvarez, president of the Lawyers Club.
According to Álvarez, Law firms are “fertile ground” for such behaviour as young female associates often work with older male partners late at night. Other partners may not be eager to call out such behaviour for fear of losing a major moneymaker and the female attorneys may not report fearing retaliation.
Women Lawyers Still ‘Invisible’
Earlier the efforts were focused on retaining women wanting to have children, with perks such as better maternity and part time policies. However this has failed to have an impact on the trend.
According to Elena Deutsch executive coach who works with women wanting to leave law firms for other careers millennial women are today “more empowered to leave.” They don’t like what they see when they observe older women in their firms who are partners.
Sharon Rowen an Atlanta attorney whose documentary, “Balancing the Scales” talks about the challenges of successful female lawyers is working on her next film “An Invisible Truth.”
Rowen pointed out that women become invisible “at a certain point” as they fail to get promoted to where they are qualified to be. She stated that women are not seen as leaders instead are viewed as “helpers, mothers, workers, people who get the work done.”
According to Rowen, diversity matters not only because research shows that companies are more profitable with diverse leadership but also because women comprise half the population.