Susan Smith Blakely

Are Young Women Lawyers Still Enamored With Law Firm Jobs?

There was a time when most young lawyers --- male and female alike --- found law firm jobs desirable.   The pay was good, the hours were manageable, and the upward mobility and financial rewards were inviting.  But, is that still true today?

According to today's article on the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS) online Issues Blog, it may no longer be true for young women lawyers.  Based on statistics from the Colorado Supreme Court's Attorney Regulation Counsel, the article identifies a "trend" away from law firm jobs for young women law graduates in that state.  Those statistics showed that less than half of the active women attorneys under the age of 30 in Colorado are working in law firms of any size and only 20 percent of women attorneys younger than 30 years old joined big law firms.

These are interesting findings whether you live and practice in the state of Colorado or not.  At a time when at least half of most of the graduating classes in law schools across the country are women, you would expect to see equal percentages of male and female law graduates joining law firms.  And that still may be the case in states like New York and California and the District of Columbia, all jurisdictions with multiple top-rated law schools, but it clearly is not the case in Colorado.  So why is that?

Some of the reasons for this identified trend away from law firms by women lawyers is predictable.  More and more young lawyers today are focused on having lives outside of work, and that certainly is true of those women lawyers, who desire to have children and anticipate childcare responsibilities.  Even with the advent of more generous maternity and family leave policies and more flexible telecommuting programs, the expectation of billing 2000 plus hours a year and having family and childcare responsibilities is daunting.  But that does not completely explain this trend.

Other explanations offered in the article are less predictable but also worthy of consideration, starting with the effects of the Great Recession.  After 2008, many law firms found it necessary to cut back expenses due to the economic downturn, which resulted in reductions in hiring.  As a result, many law school graduates between approximately 2008 and 2015 looked beyond law firms for employment opportunities.   They left law firms that were cutting back on hiring or they failed to apply to law firms at all.  In doing so, both male and female law graduates were forced to look at non-traditional positions where they have remained even after the economy picked up and law firms rebounded.

Another and more troublesome explanation has its genesis in law schools.  The article cites a 2016 study showing that women law school applicants are less likely to be accepted by schools that pride themselves in placing graduates in "good law firm jobs."  If this is the case, then women law school applicants are more likely to find themselves in law schools that do not emphasize law firm jobs for graduates --- because law firms are not as interested in the graduates of those schools.

The important takeaway from the 2016 study is that women who apply to law school are less likely to be admitted to schools with high law firm placement rates.  If this is true, there is a lot for both law schools and law firms to be thinking about.  If the inequitable treatment of women lawyers reaches all the way back to law school admission policies, the American Bar Association and the Association of American Law Schools both should be forming committees to explore these findings.  Pronto.

And we should hope that there is another less sinister explanation for this result.

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