Susan Smith Blakely

Why Women Lawyers Leave Firms:  Astonishing New Statistics

Why do women lawyers leave?

I have been pondering, speaking about and writing about this issue for a decade.  It is fundamental that, before we can try to fix our profession with solutions like lateral hiring, mergers and expanding into new markets, we must delve deep into the roots of the attrition problems.

For years it was hard to get law firm management to talk about the high rates of attrition for women lawyers.  For many of those years, new law graduates were plentiful, and it was a buyers' market.  That all changed with the Great Recession and the fall off in the number of students in law schools.  Now, there is a talent war for the best of the young lawyers, and it has shifted the focus more toward retention.  That is a good thing, but the reasons for the high attrition rates --- for both male and female lawyers --- are still not well understood.

So, I was very pleased to read "Top 3 Reasons for Associate Attrition and 3 Ways to Combat It" on Law.com recently.  The new statistics cited in that article and the assertion that the most expensive and surprising problem facing law firms today is not client retention or salaries but associate attrition is validation of so many of the programs that I have presented over the years to law firms and bar associations.  And, make no mistake, this "problem" is all about women lawyers --- because women are at the tops of their law school graduation classes and often represent the best of the associate talent in the profession.  Losing that kind of talent can hurt a lot.

  • According to a report by Overflow Legal Network relied on in the article:
  • Almost 46 percent of associates leave their firm within the first three years, and 81 percent leave in the first five years; and
  • At a 400-person law firms, associate attrition can result in losses of over $25 million annually --- not including the knowledge and client relationships that depart with departing associates.

Yes, you read that right.  $25 million.  That is an amazing and grim statistic, and it should grab the attention of every law firm manager.  These new statistics are consistent with a NALP survey that I have relied on for years, which found that 76 percent of women lawyers leave Big Law in the first five years, but that survey was about women associates and was explained by work-life issues associated with starting families.  However, this new statistic is not limited to women lawyers and it is not limited to Big Law.  Without those qualifiers, it is shocking and needs to be taken very seriously.

The causes for this high rate of attrition, as cited in the article, are:

Lack of associate training and mentoring;
Longer partnership tracks and requirements for larger books of business to protect the Profits Per Partner at the tops of firms; and
The expectations of members of the millennial generation regarding things like work-life balance, the role that technology should play in the work place, and clearly defined measures of success.

So, you say, what are the solutions?  You will have to stay tuned for next week's blog to find out!

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