Susan Smith Blakely

Why Do Women Lawyers Leave?

Almost 40% of women leave the profession of law mid-career.  That is 2 to 3 times as many women as men, and it is a high percentage. For people outside the profession, it can appear to be lunacy to leave a high-paying job in a respectable profession.  So, why do so many women lawyers leave a profession that has required a dedication of so much of their time and money?

Some of the reasons that women leave are very personal, but others fall into common categories.  One of those common reasons, of course, is the work-life challenge that women face as the bearers of the children and the primary care-takers in most families.

But, what are the others?  Some of them may surprise you.  According to a recent article in Huffington Post Business, those reasons include failing to find meaning in the work, being surrounded by toxic or dysfunctional environments or people, and unappealing role models.  Although you cannot plan for some of these, others should be more obvious to you when you are researching job opportunities or interviewing.  So, you may have more control over these things than you think.  If that is the case, be sure that you TAKE CONTROL.

Let's break these reasons down a little:

The work-life challenges:  For many women lawyers, the challenge is trying to work at the office like men and raise children at home like women.  Law firms generally operate on an "up or out" rule, and this leaves women at a crossroads.  Do they stay in the job to work themselves up to partner --- or do they leave while they still have some options to a full-time commitment in a demanding profession?  Those women lawyers with children are apt to find the long road to partnership and the time away from family particularly unappealing;

Lack of meaning in the work:  Women especially need to feel that they are appreciated and are performing meaningful work.  Most women do not flourish in situations where they are made to feel like cogs in the wheel.  Experience tells us that women are very loyal as a group if they are treated well and feel like they are performing important work.  "Inclusion" is a big issue for women, as discussed in one of my past blogs devoted to that subject. However, the law profession and legal settings do not always provide those feelings of inclusion and can be much more isolating.  A certain amount of what lawyers do also can be repetitive and boring, a result of the specialization that has taken over our profession in the last decade.  Clearly, it is not all like the excitement of an episode of Ally McBeal or even Perry Mason ;

Toxic or dysfunctional environments or people:  Environments that include verbal abuse and pressure from clients and management are anxiety-creating and should be avoided.  There is not enough money in the world to make you want to be in such an environment.  Pay close attention to your surroundings when you are choosing a job and a business culture; and

Unappealing role models:  Too many young women lawyers do not have positive role models in their firms and organizations.  So many women lawyers dropped out in the 80's and 90's, and, as a result, there now is a dearth of women lawyers in management and leadership.  Many of the women at high levels of management and leadership have sacrificed much of what the young women today hold dear, e.g., families and children, and the young women cannot identify with these senior lawyers.

There is no question that this failure to identify with or embrace the work is a serious dilemma for young women lawyers.  It also is becoming a serious dilemma for young male lawyers, but the young women seem to experience it more significantly because of their unique roles as women, wives, mothers and family caretakers.  Even with these drawbacks, however, many young women lawyers report satisfaction with the mental challenge of the job, interaction with smart and skilled colleagues, the opportunity to learn new things and acquire new skills and, of course, the relative high salaries paid to lawyers.

How do you gauge your professional happiness?  Where are you on the spectrum?  Keep this list on your desktop and consult it from time to time.  Think about those questions and how you would answer them.   Sometimes the problem does not require a change of profession as much as it requires a change of culture or surroundings. 

You also need to be careful not to overreact to your circumstances.  After all, it is called "work" because it is not "play."  Important jobs take commitment and sacrifice.  The key is knowing how much.


Susan Smith Blakely is the Founder of LegalPerspectives LLC and a nationally-recognized author, speaker and consultant on issues related to young women lawyers, young women law students and young women interested in careers in the law.  She is author of Best Friends at the Bar:  What Women Need to Know about a Career in the Law (Wolters Kluwer/Aspen Publishers 2009), and Best Friends at the Bar:  The New Balance for Today's Woman Lawyer (Wolters Kluwer Law & Business 2012), which addresses the work-life struggle for women lawyers and includes twelve profiles of women who have successfully transitioned from one practice setting to another.  Ms. Blakely frequently speaks at colleges and universities, law schools, law firms and law organizations, and she has been featured in media including the LA Daily Journal, National Jurist, Washington Examiner Newspaper, Forbes Woman, DC Spotlight, Daily Muse and Huffington Post Business.  Ms. Blakely also is a frequent guest speaker and panelist at conferences on women's issues and the law profession.

Ms. Blakely graduated from the University of Wisconsin with distinction and from Georgetown University Law Center where she taught legal research and writing. She also is a Marshall Goldsmith trained career and leadership coach and a member of the CoachSource global network of leadership coaches.  She also is a career coach for the Indiana University Marshall Goldsmith Leadership Development and Executive Coaching Academy.   For more information, please visit www.bestfriendsatthebar.com. 

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