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Why Do the "Best" Women Leave Law Firms? Because They Can.

Vivia Chen

September 23, 2016


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.





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I think that this really hits on the fact that women are less willing to be miserable in their careers than men are. It has always seemed to be that the Big Law environment is miserable, but it pays well and has the status factor that many men look for. I think this is simply directly related to women choosing to work in an environment that they enjoy. Maybe that is simply easier to make happen if you finished at the top of your class.

I have such mixed feelings about this post. First, it presents as the classic 'go to law school for your Mrs. degree' (so fifties). Then it's just 'not sure what I want to do with my life so I'll go to law school until something better comes along'. Then I'm left with BigLaw should not hire women from top tier schools because they don't stick around so go to lower tier schools (I have no problem with seeking the best and the brightest wherever they are educated because I can't stomach the whole tier-thing anyway). But at the end of the day to conclude it's 'because they can' leave the law is so odd and sends the wrong message about women in the law. Just my initial reaction.

I graduated from a 3rd tier law school but ended up at O'Melveny. Yes, I stuck it out until partnership and 10 years beyond. If I had married a man with deep pockets, I wouldn't have delayed child bearing until after partnership when my financial future was secure. Perhaps women attorneys with good options who leave are the canaries in the coal mine!

my theory on this is, this is because you can get a job from the middle or lower part of a top 10 law school class
which can be someone with raw intelligence but who doesn't/won't work hard
but at a biglaw firm you have to work hard, and it doesnt really matter in the first 3-5 years if youre smart
whereas someone from a TTT who gets into biglaw has already worked their ass off in LS
i don't attribute it to privilege -- at least not based on the career trajectories for women i've seen out of my T5 LS

I worked at a paper company. They deliberately recruited at state land-grant colleges and looked for people who were the first ones in their families to go to college. The idea was that these people were really bright, had overcome many obstacles, and were not afraid of hard work.

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About The Careerist

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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