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Why Senior Female Lawyers Are Dropping Out

Vivia Chen

August 9, 2016

Careerist-Vivic-Vert-201607291000You 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.



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when women finally shrug off the feminist indoctrination and learn about the misery and regret of childless career women, they drop out to have kids and run a home. Research shows a woman at home is worth around $100K/year to her family (depending on their family demographic). However, it's a terribly price that society pays with all the money that is poured into their education and training. On top of that, they kept a man out of that education slot who would have spent his entire career in that profession. This goes for all high-level careers including medicine.

"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." Does it really? I suspect it's much more likely to mean that in the 1980s when these women were studying, the proportion of female to male law students was probably closer to 27:73 rather than 50:50.

You can't logically compare 30 year old lawyers with 50 year old lawyers and say it means women are leaving big law as they age, when the ratio of female to male was probably quite different to start with between those age groups.

As a 53 year old former big law firm attorney with two children ages 12 and 10, I would question the assumption that a woman who drops out of big law at 50 isn't motivated by child care/work life balance concerns. She may not be an "empty nester" yet, as this article seems to imply. That's not to say that unequal compensation isn't an issue. More data on the factors influencing the drop off would be helpful.

I don't think women get worn down faster then men. We have a more difficult experience in advancement. Most of which is not due to any fault of our own.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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