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  • InsideTrack
  • January 28, 2022

    Addressing Retention: Steps to Keep Women in Law Firm Positions

    While women are joining the legal profession in equal numbers as men, the proportion of women partners has increased only marginally since the 1990s. Kelly Gorman discusses recent studies that reveal what it takes to retain women in law firm positions.

    Kelly Gorman

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    According to recent data, the State Bar of Wisconsin currently has 64% male membership and 36% female membership. In the State Bar Business Law Section, those numbers are 73% and 27% respectively. However, breaking down those percentages by age group shows a more balanced male and female membership within the younger demographic.

    In addition, according to the Minority Corporate Counsel Association's (MCCA) Law Firm Diversity Survey 2021, female students are hired as associates in law firms in approximately equal proportion to their male colleagues.

    These numbers reflect good news for gender equality in the profession, but there is still work to do. A 2021 report by the American Bar Association’s Initiative on Long-Term Careers for Women in Law, called In Their Own Words, found that women1 are twice as likely as men to leave law firms early – with women of color facing the highest attrition rate. Attrition is similarly present even after partnership decisions are made.

    Why the Exit

    There are undoubtedly many reasons why women leave firms for a different job in the legal field or leave the profession altogether. Of course, studies cannot account for all situations. In fact, leaving a firm can be unrelated to the firm setting itself.

    Kelly Gorman Kelly Gorman, U.W. Law School Class of 2023, is a law student currently serving as a student liaison for the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Business Law Section.

    However, looking at reasons why women leave can provide insight into what they seek. This in turn provides guidance for firms examining how to make work environments conducive for long-term careers for women.

    As a law student, I am interested in learning about advances in gender equality in the legal profession. Taking note of retention hurdles faced by those currently practicing in firms helps take stock of work to be done, in the hopes of protecting representation gains that have been made in the younger demographic.

    In this article, I compile ideas from the ABA report and other studies, and suggest a few ways to help retain women in law firms. It is important to note that additional studies could be done analyzing why women choose other career options, even within a firm, or decide not to go to firms in the first place.

    Ways to Help Retain Female Talent

    1) Provide Opportunities for Leadership Positions

    While women now comprise more than half of current law school attendees and about half of all associates, the proportion of women partners has increased only marginally since the 1990s, according to the ABA's 2021 report.

    According to the MCCA survey, women currently make up only 23.5% of equity partners, and about 31% of nonequity partners. These percentages are improvements from prior years. As they represent senior roles, numbers are likely to continually improve as more female attorneys in firms progress through their careers.

    Even with the increased numbers, women are more likely than men to leave their positions before obtaining a partnership – which affects growth in this area. According to the ABA report, a lack of opportunity for career advancement through leadership positions is one of the main factors contributing to female lawyers’ attrition. As one interviewee put it, “I’m not going to stay here and not be in a position where I can look forward.”

    The ABA study suggests some things to think about with respect to providing opportunities for women in leadership positions. These include making sure both full-time and part-time employees have and know about options available to them in terms of career advancement, and making career development assistance with feedback readily available.

    Firms can also take steps to ensure there is a critical mass of women on key committees tasked with meaningful assignments, and reexamine lateral hiring practices used when choosing partners.

    Collecting and analyzing data of those currently in leadership positions can also be a helpful first step to determining whether leadership positions are representative of a firm’s demographics.

    Leadership opportunities are just as important for female law students, who benefit by sharing different perspectives and honing leadership skills even before a legal career begins. Firms can offer diversity scholarships with an internship component as one way to encourage participation.

    The Legal Education Opportunities (LEO) Program at the University of Wisconsin recognizes firms undertaking such efforts. The program recently recognized Godfrey & Kahn for supporting the recruitment, retention, and success of minority law students through their full-tuition diversity scholarships. The State Bar of Wisconsin offers additional leadership opportunities for students. State Bar sections, including the Business Law Section, developed student liaison positions to give a platform to diverse voices.

    2) Create a Support System via Mentoring

    In a research project by the University of Pennsylvania Law School identifying challenges women face in law and business (2020), 96% of the women interviewed mentioned the importance of mentors to their professional growth. Similarly, in the ABA report discussed above, interviewers found that a lack of relationships, such as these mentorship opportunities, can lead women, and especially women of color, to feel isolated in their practice areas. This feeling is compounded by the continuing trend of remote work.

    The availability of mentorship opportunities creates a support system for female attorneys as well as for female law students. This support system helps them achieve career goals. Female mentors can highlight techniques to overcome barriers mentees face. Male mentors can provide a different perspective and serve as allies to female colleagues. Mentorship programs also establish camaraderie among firm members, reducing feelings of isolation.

    For female students considering a career in law, mentorships often emerge from practicing attorneys sharing their stories at networking or outreach sessions at universities. The State Bar Business Law Section, for example, hosts informational sessions each semester for UW-Madison and Marquette University law students.

    Having attorneys share their experience in the business law field helps students see someone like them going down a specific career path and provides transparency in terms of what to expect. Conversations with individual students can even turn into long-term mentorships that continue when the students are practicing. When creating the event, reaching out to women in business and minority student groups helps ensure all who are interested receive an opportunity to participate.

    3) Offer Flexibility on the Job

    A lack of flexibility in their job situation is another common theme that leads to experienced female talent choosing to leave their firms, according to the ABA report. This is evident in working hours as well as the ability to branch out into new practice areas as their careers progress.

    Flexibility in working hours includes offering part-time alternatives that still allow for upward mobility and opportunities to work remotely. Flexibility in working hours might also mean changing the misconception that reduced hours or different work settings mean less quality work. Interviewees cite billable hours and client testimony as ways to hold employees accountable to meet expectations while in a different setting.

    Flexibility can be a double-edged sword. For example, working from anywhere can make it difficult to set boundaries. However, a 2017 panel of women attorneys, including business lawyers, who gathered in Milwaukee to discuss retention strategies still saw flexibility as a positive tool. Flexibility in work schedules helps employees, regardless of gender, balance personal and professional lives.

    A lack of flexibility to change practice areas as one’s career progresses also leads to higher attrition rates among women. While not the most prevalent retention issue, the ABA report found this lack of flexibility contributes to leaving a firm, often in favor of in-house positions that provide more variety.

    An ability to switch practice areas notwithstanding years in practice provides ongoing learning opportunities and allows for a continual challenge. The ABA study suggests firms provide opportunities for lawyers to expand into new practice areas. For firms with a specialty focus that may limit a lawyer’s ability to switch practice areas within a firm, the report suggests establishing variety by encouraging pro bono work and involvement outside the organization.

    Final Thoughts

    Diversity in law firms harbors creative and effective legal solutions. Women contribute to that diversity. The number of women in the legal profession, including in business law, continues to increase with each graduating class. We can gain insights by examining hurdles faced by women in law firms, as well as looking at the reasons why the women leave for roles outside of law firms.

    As a law student, my experience thus far has been one of inclusivity and opportunity. I’m excited and hopeful to be part of a community that places value on continuing these important conversations.


    1 The ABA report did not indicate whether the studies that categorize people as women are because they were designated female at birth or identify as female.

    This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Business Law Blog. Visit the State Bar sections or the Business Law Section webpages to learn more about the benefits of section membership.

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