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Why are Women -- and Generation X and Y Attorneys Generally -Leaving Large Law Firms?
Some Possible Explanations, and Some Possible Remedies


Wednesday, Mar. 07, 2007

This month, "California Lawyer" magazine featured a provocative cover story entitled "We're Outta Here." The story, by Malaika Costello-Dougherty, cited notable findings by the NALP Foundation for Law Career Research and Education: On average, almost a fifth of associates (male and female) leave their law firms each year -- a record high. Within five years of entering a firm, over three-quarters of associates will depart. The associates who are leaving are disproportionately female. No wonder, then, that while nearly one in every two associates at large firms is female, it remains the case that only one in every five or so partners is female.

Costello-Dougherty offers an explanation for the statistics based not only on gender, but also on a generation gap: Unlike the Baby Boomers who preceded them, Generation X and Generation Y women, she says, are less willing to sacrifice the rest of their lives for their careers. (Lawyers belong to Generation X and Y if they are between roughly the ages of 25 and 41.) Her interviews with women attorneys substantiate the point. While Generation X and Y men weren't interviewed, I'd bet many feel the same way.

In this column, I'll sketch what I believe would be the ideal law firm with respect to convincing both women and men from Generations X and Y to stay to make partner. I'll also discuss the experiences of some of the men and women attorneys I know, from these generations, along the way.

The Ideal Law Firm For Generations X and Y: Salary, Not Partnership

To begin, in the ideal law firm for our generations, everyone would be salaried; there would be no partnership track. (Or, alternatively, the partnership track would be radically different -- lengthened, or including the option of part-time work, during some periods, without reducing one's chances for partnership.)

After all, consider the life that the partnership track inflicts: Let's say two law school classmates marry, or enter into a domestic partnership, or simply a committed relationship, at graduation. Both took a year or two off before law school, so one is 26 and the other is 27. Both join the same large law firm -- with a typical seven-to-eight year partnership track.

The first three or four years are pressure-filled, and put a strain on their relationship, but they get through them. Now, they are 30 and 31, and ready to think about children. Yet, this is exactly the time when the pressure intensifies.

Each gets his or her fifth-year review; both are positive. Now, they have to decide whether to endure two to three years of intense stress, and near-total unavailability to each other, in order to try -- possibly in vain -- to make partner at 33 or 34. To top it off, even if they do make partner, things won't get any easier -- and may become even more stressful.

Moreover, by then, the question of children, if they want to have them, will be increasingly pressing: Neither wants to be sixty when their children enter college, and both want to spend significant time with their children. They have already paid off their six-figure student loans, thanks to today's six-figure firm salaries and five-figure annual bonuses. So, unsurprisingly, they leave.

What would make them stay? More money isn't the answer, for this couple. Many associates are leaving even despite having a good chance at partnership, and despite knowing that profits per partner at large law firms are in the seven-figure territory. Instead, moving to a salaried system -- or a system with an extremely long partnership track, or room for part-time options, at least -- is a necessity to preserve any semblance of quality of life in their 30's. Requiring fewer billable hours is also a necessity. Otherwise, life is simply unlivable.

Allowing job-sharing, and staffing cases realistically, is also key: In current firms, work can spin out of control for a particular person because only he or she is sufficiently knowledgeable about a given case to work on a new motion that has come in, or a new client request. Job-sharing and/or more risk-averse staffing will impose some costs that firms will have to absorb -- more people must now be up-to-speed -- but will also prevent the all-too-common situation in which a case blows up, and one person must work 24/7.

Granted, clients may complain about overstaffing, but I believe cases can run better with slightly larger staffs if tasks are managed well, and if meetings are avoided in favor of email updates. Indeed, the change ought to have benefits for the firm: After all, someone who's just pulled an all-nighter is prone to make a serious mistake. Legal work -- other than document discovery, at times, and many of these firms have separate teams for document work -- requires close attention and concentration.

Reactions to An Unsustainable Life: Couples Seek Alternatives

I've seen this kind of pattern, in which couples leave law firms in their 30's, happen again and again, among my Generation X friends -- whether they are two-attorney couples, or simply one-attorney couples where the other person also has a demanding career.

One friend and her husband both left their respective firms to become law professors at the same school. Another friend left to become a journalist; her husband, an architect at a top firm, left, too, to become an artist and sculptor. Several of my friends have shifted from law to business, where they find the hours are more predictable, and allow them to be home for dinner with their families. All of them are happy with their situations; each couple has several children, with whom they can spend significant time.

Are their law firms losing anything when they go? Absolutely. One might think the law firms would be happy to lose those who leave voluntarily: After all, that means they can offer partnerships to more of the associates who stay, which in turn can attract more, and more talented, associates. The problem, though, is that those who leave are often themselves among the most talented -- including, for instance, some associates who worked as Supreme Court clerks prior to joining law firms.

One Supreme Court clerk I met decided to leave her firm to become a stay-at-home mom -- but might she, or others in her situation, have decided differently if working at a firm were more feasible? Another Supreme Court clerk (after being denied paternity leave) left when he and his wife had a child, to work at a smaller firm. Yet another Supreme Court clerk left to work at a nonprofit; he married and he and his wife had children soon after.

Firms want Supreme Court clerks so badly, that they often give them bonuses in the tens of thousands of dollars to join the firm. But then, with the grueling partnership system, they drive them away. Surely, this makes no sense from a business perspective. And the point isn't restricted to Supreme Court clerks, of course: Can firms in such a competitive profession -- where a case can often be won with a brilliant argument or strategy thought up by one insightful person -- really afford to recruit the best and then watch them leave?

In Washington, D.C., I've observed how the Justice Department's appellate divisions have their pick of the very best women lawyers, simply by dint of the more reasonable work hours and part-time alternatives they offer. That's great for the Justice Department, but law firms should be concerned about the cream-skimming that goes on. In addition, women should be concerned about effectively being limited to an option that while extremely interesting and important, is also dramatically lower-paying than a law firm job.

Work Solutions Must Accommodate Two-Career Couples, or It's Women Who Pay the Price

Readers may object, of course, that there's another solution: One person can become a law-firm partner, and the other can have a part-time job, or take care of the kids, certainly a worthy and more than demanding job in itself.

Yet it's only reasonable to ask that the workplace accommodate a two-career couple -- after all, such couples are becoming all the more common nowadays. Moreover, the reality is that when one person in a (straight) couple stays home or takes a part-time job in order to take care of the kids, it's almost always the woman. (Many law firms' policy of denying paternity leave doesn't help: When men have little time to bond with their children early on, it's no surprise that they don't opt to stay home and take care of them later.) Thus, to fail to accommodate two-career couples, is inevitably to decimate the rank of women at large firms.

As a result, large law firms' choice of organizational form -- opting for the kind of partnership system most use -- becomes, in effect, a form of gender discrimination. Firms know that retaining the seven-to-eight-year partnership system, as it now exists, will predictably cause a grossly disproportionate number of women to leave. Yet they retain this archaic hazing ritual anyway.

The result is that firms -- far from reflecting the gender-equal society of the Twenty-First Century -- are often filled with sole-breadwinner men under tremendous psychological pressure to make partner. Perhaps these men benefit the firm by excelling, and working to their utmost, for a few years. But after they do make partner, there is the inevitable burnout, and years of stress take a health toll.

In the end, law practice is a marathon that has been perverted into an artificial sprint: Lawyers who would naturally develop their skills and knowledge gradually, over the years, are forced to speed the pace at exactly the wrong years of their lives. (Ironically, the same sprint/marathon comparison could be made with respect to law school itself: There, students must work ceaselessly their first year to earn crucial law review spots and judicial clerkship opportunities -- when a much more accurate assessment of their true capabilities could be made after three years, not one.)

Law Firms Could Easily Make Life Easier for Workers If They So Choose

In theory, it should be easier -- not more difficult -- for large law firms to make life better for those who work there, than it is for small firms to do the same. Large firms have the luxury and financial flexibility to staff more attorneys on a case as the workload grows, and to adjust hiring to reflect goals for average attorney hours. They also have the ability to accept the cost of a bit of redundancy and overlap when two job-sharing attorneys are staffed on a given case, or when a case is slightly overstaffed rather than passing that cost on to the client. The cost of job-sharing, and reasonable staffing, should be viewed as a cost of doing business.

Yet too often, that's not how it works: A skeleton-crew case team remains the same size, and attorneys simply work more hours. I knew one attorney who literally drafted and filed a motion in one case every single day, for weeks on end, because partners point-blank refused to put another associate on the case. The client didn't want to pay for it, and the firm wouldn't pick up the slack. Unsurprisingly, she was ready to drop from exhaustion. All because the firm was too cheap to prevent it.

In the end, Costello-Daugherty's article is right: There is a generation gap here. But it's not really a matter of opinion: We're right, and they are wrong, and ultimately, the Baby Boomers should see that.

Julie Hilden, a FindLaw columnist, graduated from Yale Law School in 1992. She practiced First Amendment law in D.C. from 1996-99; however, this column concerns the practices of, and attorneys from, a range of firms in Washington, D.C., New York, and Los Angeles. Hilden is also a novelist. In reviewing Hilden's novel, 3, Kirkus Reviews praised Hilden's "rather uncanny abilities," and Counterpunch called it "a must read.... a work of art." Hilden's website,, includes free MP3 and text downloads of the novel's first chapter.

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