Chicken or the Egg: The issue of retention starts with perspective.

Why can't we retain our female and minority lawyers?  Last month I told you I would share my story first.  The story of why I choose to stay, when a disproportionate number of lawyers like me choose to leave the traditional practice of law.  I am a female minority lawyer practicing in BigLaw.  I have been in practice for 12 years.  I started in a smaller firm and made my way steadily through bigger more established firms.  In my city, there are few lawyers like me practicing in the larger law firms.  There are plenty, however, that opened up their own firms right out of law school (for reasons I may cover in another post), and many in-house and in the public sector.  Of those that have chosen the more traditional path few seem to stay long term. So why I am still here?  It’s all about perspective. 

Like many female lawyers, I have been subjected to some questionable treatment.  I have had male attorneys use me like a secretary.  I made their copies, set up their meetings, pulled their exhibits - all while they gave a much younger male attorney the opportunity to sit in on the meeting, take the deposition, and argue the motion.  I have had male attorneys tell me, after I had a child, that they assumed I would no longer want to travel to hearings because of my family obligations.  I have had male attorneys belittle me for formatting issues that they routinely ignore or overlook in their own work or the work of their male colleagues.

If I add in billable hour requirements and the pressure to develop business (more on that in another post), you’d think the experience is mostly miserable.  The truth is it’s not miserable.  The treatment I described above, and the underlying pressures inherent in this industry, constitute a fractional part of my experience as a lawyer. The vast majority of my time has been spent with great lawyers and good clients.  I enjoyed working at every firm I have passed through, and genuinely enjoy working with lawyers at my current firm.  I have worked with and worked for some truly excellent lawyers that have all taught me something along the way.  For that I am grateful. 

And that’s the perspective I come from – gratefulness. Grateful for opportunities big and small. Grateful to be able to work with and learn from other attorneys – those more experienced and those less experienced than me. Grateful to be part of this conversation. This perspective provides me with a measure of mental balance.  And I think retaining lawyers is about providing a culture that is mindful of that mental balance.  From my experience, firms with a culture of inclusivity, collaboration, mutual respect and transparency are the most able provide their lawyers with a measure of mental balance and motivate them to keep fighting the good fight.  That's not a completely gendered proposition.  

The problems with gender bias and racial bias will likely linger, in some form, even after my career as a lawyer ends.  But the longer I stay, the longer I am able to contribute to the overall conversation. The longer I can voice my concerns.  The longer I can listen and provide an outlet for others' concerns.  The higher chance I can work to change things.  For me, the issue of retention is just as much about me as it is about the firms that are losing people like me.  I am not a statistic.  I don’t say any of this in judgment of those that have opted to leave this path. My perspective helps me with my mental balance.  My positives outweigh my negatives.  But the same isn’t true for everyone.  

Next month I’ll talk to someone who decided her positives did not outweigh her negatives.  I'll talk about her perspective, her current path, and continue our conversation of retention.

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