You hear this so often that you probably take it as holy gospel: Women bail out of Big Law because of the impossibility of balancing the demands of work and home. Being a big firm lawyer, as every Manhattan third grader knows, is an unforgiving, pressured job; and women, no matter their professional status, bear the lion's share of responsibilities at home. So when push comes to shove, women drop out to take care of the home front.
Although I've written countless articles on the difficulties of work/life balance for women, I've never completely bought that explanation. I always found it too pat, as if women, no matter how accomplished and ambitious, will inevitably pick motherhood above everything else. Besides, it's not as if all those childless women have such an easy time rising to the top either.
Recent research by ALM Intelligence seems to confirm my hunch. Besides the usual dreadful news about how women make up only 18 percent of equity partners and only 8 percent of lawyers earning more than $500,000 (yes, that's not a typo), the research shows that women are steadily leaving firms, including those who are passed their child bearing years:
What is known is that women do not leave the law disproportionally at a specific time in their lives or careers. The analysis of ALM’s Rival Edge database below reveals that women trickle out of Big Law by a few percentage points per year of age. The analysis shows that among 30-year-old lawyers at Big Law firms, women comprise 45%. Among lawyers who are 40 years old, however, women only comprise 41%, a decrease of 4 percentage points. By age 50, women only make up 27% of the lawyers, a change of 14 percentage points.
This is stunning: By age 50, women only make up 27 percent of lawyers in big firms. That means a stampede of women are leaving in their menopausal years. So much for the cozy myth women are dropping out to pop out babies and drive the carpool.
That also means that while their male counterparts are at the top of their game and raking in big bucks, many women are quietly throwing in the towel. I say "quietly" because you don't hear about these women who stick it out at firms only to leave when they should be enjoying the fruits of their labor.
I find this shocking, but Joan Williams, professor at Hastings Law School, is not surprised. Williams says: "Women lawyers in their fifties are really upset about compensation. They have the sense that men and women are not treated fairly."
The inequity in pay between male and female partners is a huge sore point for women, explains Williams, who says that her preliminary study about pay gaps in law firms and corporations confirms a troubling, continuing trend. (Williams' study is being done in conjunction with the ABA Commission on Women, Minority Corporate Counsel Association and WorkLife Law.) Indeed, the pay gap is well-documented according to National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL), female partners make only 80 percent of what men do. (Nicholas Bruch, ALM Intelligence's senior analyst, says ALM's finding that only 8 percent female lawyers earn more than $500,000 fit with NAWL's finding; both indicate "that very few women are at the very top of the earning pyramid.")
Another reason older women are leaving is that they are fed up with the game. "They get weary of decades and decades of proving themselves and being service partners, getting penalized being for that role, then getting penalized more if they protest," says Williams.
"They just get worn down faster than men," says Paula Monopoli, a law professor at the University of Maryland whose scholarship focuses on gender issues. A former law firm associate herself, Monopoli adds, "It's not like making partner solves all the implicit bias. It can actually become more pronounced when you have fewer women in your cohort."
Unfortunately, all of this ring true to me. How sad.