3 Ways to Keep Women from Quitting Big Law

law firms

At high-pressured corporate law firms, the story for too many women is the same:

Graduate from a top school.
Get hired at the same rate as men.
Work 24/7 along with male lawyers to establish career (and pay back loans).
Quit about five years in to become in-house counsel for a client, work at a smaller firm, or leave the profession all together.

All told, two thirds of new female associates depart within five years of their hiring, according to the National Association for Law Placement’s Foundation for Law Career Research and Education, a research and education nonprofit—a number that hasn’t budged in years.

The reasons why—burnout, lack of role models, work life stress, among others—aren’t too surprising. Indeed, increasingly, stressed-out male lawyers have begun eyeing the path carved for decades by women lawyers.

What is surprising is what the Best Law Firms for Women, chosen by Working Mother and Flex-Time Lawyers, are doing to counteract this long-time trend, which has resulted in women representing only 20 percent of partners and 17 percent of equity partners (those who share in a firm’s profits), according to statistics compiled by the American Bar Association.

“Often women have a child and they stop getting good work, or they start working flexible or reduced hours and become stigmatized,” notes Deborah Epstein Henry, founder of Flex-Time Lawyers and co-author of Finding Bliss: Innovative Legal Models for Happy Clients & Happy Lawyers. “They find they’re not only missing the time with their children, they’re also not even engaged in their work. They’re not able to manage the overwhelming demands that are being made on them.”

So, what are the Best Law Firms doing? First, they’re focused on flex. Firms with higher numbers of women at the top typically boast a culture where flexible work policies are used without backlash or penalty. And more importantly, these benefits are enjoyed by a wide range of lawyers, not just women for reasons related to children.

Next, role models. It can be hard for women to imagine advancing to the top ranks when too few working moms have ever done it before at the firm. But one success story won’t do: There must be a critical mass of women at the top to have an impact, says Mary Ranum, who raised daughters Ruth, 26, and Emma, 24, while also building her career at Fredrikson & Byron. At this Minneapolis-based firm, 35 percent of the equity partners are women and Mary now serves as board chair. “A law firm that has a few successful women sprinkled throughout the firm may not have enough of those relatable role models, people that a young person could say, ‘If she can do that, then so can I,’” she says.

Finally, kill the billable hour. Firms that judge success on measures other than billable hours are more likely to be hospitable to parents working flexibly. “Psychologically, one of the biggest killers for people working a reduced schedule is they don’t feel they are contributing at the same level as their peers,” suggests Sheehan Sullivan Weiss, mom of Faye, 7, and Liam, 3, and equity partner at Davis Wright Tremaine, based in Seattle.

Despite working a reduced-hour schedule, Sheehan herself serves on committees and volunteers whenever her practice group chair or managing partner asks for assistance. For her, it’s a way to keep her profile high. Says Sheehan, “Even though I don’t bill as many hours as a lot of my colleagues do, they view me as being invested at a higher level because I do so much outside of billing time that is contributing to firm management and culture and being a colleague.”

For more on what the Best Law Firms are doing to keep women lawyers on the job, read here.

About the Author

Jennifer Owens is editor of Spring.St, the place for smart women. Formerly, she was editorial director of Working Mother magazine & founding director of the Working Mother Research Institute, home to the Working Mother 100 Best Companies and Best Companies for Multicultural Women, among other initiatives.