Uh oh, it looks like your firm just wasted a ton of money recruiting those bright young women from Columbia Law School.
You know the type I'm talking about: They went to college at places like Princeton, Middlebury, Dartmouth or Pomona and graduated with honors. They interned in Washington or worked for Teach for America for two years. They scored in the 99th percentile on the LSATs, then got themselves accepted to a bunch of hotsy-totsy law schools. They're polished and poised. And now they've accepted offers at your firm.
Congrats! The female pipeline at your firm is fixed. And your firm's statistics on women will look fabulous 10 years down the line.
But if you think they'll stick it out and go for the brass ring of partnership, you're fooling yourself. According to research by ALM Intelligence's Daniella Isaacson, female grads of the top 10 law schools in U.S. News & World Report law schools drop out three to five years after joining Big Law at a much higher rate than women from lower-tiered law schools. In fact, women in the lower tier schools not only stuck it out, but some—particularly those who went to schools ranked 51 to 100—actually increased in numbers in Big Law over time. (Among men, there was no big drop, regardless of where they went to law school.)
So what's going on with the women who went to top schools? Are they not ambitious? Are they spoiled? Or are they pursuing something more fun and more fulfilling?
ALM's research doesn't say, but one explanation is that they have the luxury of choice.
A few years ago, I wrote about the research of Joni Hersch, professor of law and economics at Vanderbilt University, who finds that women graduates of elite colleges opt out of the workforce more often. Though they were more likely to have graduate degrees and greater earning potential, only 68 percent of this select group of married moms work, compared to 76 percent of those who went to less selective institutions. And the largest gap occurred among mothers with MBAs: Grads of the most selective colleges were 30 percent less likely to hold full-time jobs than those who graduated from lower-ranked schools.
The reason behind all this? Hersch suggests that they come from wealthier families and don't really need to work. Plus, they are probably marrying men with similar education with big earning potential.
I don't doubt that those same factors come into play in the female J.D. population as well. I've certainly seen the phenomenon among my female classmates from law school. The ones who married investment bankers were the first to drop out, followed by those whose husbands are partners at law firms.
Which brings us back to those women who went to less prestigious law schools and come from less comfortable backgrounds. Is anyone surprised that it's often the ones who are hungrier that have sticking power?
"Firms are fighting for same associates from the same schools," says ALM's Isaacson. She adds that firms could increase their overall diversity and retain more women if they "cast a wider net."
Maybe so. Meanwhile, the reality is that privileged women do have choices (arguably more than similarly positioned "privileged" men, who might feel more societal pressure to soldier on). And often, the choice is not to stick it out in a job that's pressured and unfulfilling.
Maybe it's not the feminist thing to do, but there it is.
Photo: Wellesley College graduation.