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    Wisconsin Lawyer
    March 10, 2022

    Why Do Women Leave Law Firms?

    Stop thinking that the reason women leave private practice is a lack of grit or of the growth mindset. Instead, focus on making law firms into places where all lawyers can thrive. 

    Deanne M. Koll

    men and women in front of different size steps

    The legal profession keeps trying to sidestep the issues relating to female lawyers and their mass exodus out of private practice. It’s really very simple – at some point, female lawyers decide that all the nonsense of private practice is just not worth putting up with anymore. A woman lawyer quietly exiting the profession is a statement that she’s had enough.

    Recently, the State Bar published an article by an ambitious law student,1 who summarized the ABA’s findings relating to the attrition of women in law firms. Author Kelly Gorman cites three ABA findings as to why women are leaving practice: 1) lack of leadership opportunities for women, 2) lack of successful mentoring opportunities for young women, and 3) lack of job flexibility.

    Deanne M. KollDeanne M. Koll, William Mitchell 2006, is an attorney and shareholder with Bakke Norman S.C., with offices in Eau Claire, Menomonie, and and New Richmond, Wis.

    If you take those three findings and look for the common denominator, what you find is that law firms have not (and maybe cannot) get themselves into this century, in which we acknowledge that women are different than men but also equal with men. Women are not asking for more. We are not requesting more opportunities, more mentoring, more flexibility. Women lawyers are simply asking for law firms to recognize that women and men are not uniform beings. They are different, and policies should be tailored to recognize these differences. This is similar to the meme in which two young children – one short and one already tall – are trying to look over a fence but have the same-size stepping stool. That’s equal, yes. But it does not equate with equality.

    This conclusion is supported further by a recent initiative by the American Bar Association: the Grit Project.2 This is an initiative born out of an ABA special taskforce, the Commission on Women in the Profession,3 which was created to review why women are leaving the legal profession at an alarming rate. Pursuant to the website, the Grit Project is meant to educate women lawyers about the science behind a “grit and growth mindset,” which the commission found were two important traits necessary to enhance the retention and promotion of women lawyers.

    Do you see the message that sends here? It says, women, you need to learn how to suck it up and deal with all the bull****. You need the “grit” to figure out how to see over that fence, even though you’re shorter. That, my friends, is exactly the problem. What I read into that deduction is that the Commission on Women in the Profession found that women are exiting the profession because they aren’t willing to just suck it up and deal with it. And, the commission is suggesting that the women’s unwillingness to put forth more effort than their male counterparts just to be equal is the problem. Instead, women are looking at the long-standing, male-focused institutions in the legal profession and concluding (eventually), “nah, continuing to fight this fight isn’t for me.”

    And can you blame them? Other professions are growing, adapting, and recognizing their flaws. But not the legal field. Instead, we’re saying to women – get some grit! Get tougher! Suck it up and deal with it, we ain’t changing! Do you see the problem?

    Women are smart. And, women lawyers are smart and savvy. Once women recognize that they’ll always get the same-size footstool from which to reach partner, even though their male counterparts were always invited to “scotch Friday” and “golf league Wednesday,” women say “to heck with it.” Then, they go find a different career path that recognizes the differences between women and men and tailors the work environment to meet those challenges.

    Here’s the awkward part. I’m a woman and I’m still in private practice – 16 years later. Some may conclude that means I’m less smart and less savvy than my counterparts who wised up and left the profession. And those conclusions might be right. But, I can’t leave. My law partners are all men – seven of them. Even if I break through only to them, I’m making progress.

    Step one is recognizing the issue. Step two is agreeing to work on it. Join me, for the good of our joint profession.

    Women are not asking for more. We are not requesting more opportunities, more mentoring, more flexibility.


    1 Kelly Gorman, Addressing Retention: Steps to Keep Women in Law Firm Positions, InsideTrack, Feb. 2, 2022,

    2 ABA, The Grit Project, (last visited Feb. 3, 2022).

    3 ABA, Women in the Profession, (last visited Feb. 3, 2022).

    » Cite this article: 95 Wis. Law. 29-30 (March 2022).

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