Retaining Women in the Law

Reformation of flexibility for all is key

Difficulty in addressing the problem of the retention and advancement of women in legal careers is prevalent, deserves scrutiny, and likely will continue to make headlines. Given the complexity of the problem and the variety of angles from which to analyze it, there are any number of arguably valid ways to assess the problem, as well as affect change. 

Data suggests that women leave law in general because of a pervasive environment of disparate challenges and negative stereotypes surrounding their work in firms.  Unpacking this reality a bit, it seems at least some energy should be spent addressing and working to “update” firm culture to accommodate the needs of modern women and families.

In the United States, a majority of women take on the lion’s share of home and child responsibilities. Within the legal world this holds true, and there are not many flexible options to accommodate women during times where family responsibilities are particularly onerous. The fact that the term “mommy track” has existed for decades and has been used openly in firms demonstrates how pervasive the assumption is that women will leave their jobs to care for children, and, further, that gender alone will absolutely determine the trajectory of a woman’s legal career—and not in a positive way.  The recent litigation surrounding this “mommy track” practice highlights that women are no longer willing to accept that this feature of Big Law is fixed; rather that it is an illegal form of discrimination. 

It can be argued that women need some accommodations during these years; however, the problem won’t be entirely solved with a focus only on women. Rather, firms must adopt a large scale gender-neutral flexibility strategy that not only allows for women to downshift without penalty, but also encourages men to be open to doing the same. We will never move the needle if women are the only ones taking advantage of flexibility…that will simply be the “mommy track” rewritten and repackaged to seem less malignant.

Allowing for gender-neutral flexible roles that would help keep women in law would be an important first step in helping women stay on track in their careers. However, few top firms have been open to truly flexible arrangements. But there is reason for hope. Linklaters is leading the way in the UK, recently announcing a gender-neutral flexibility policy that doesn’t require the individual to explain why they need flexibility.   This should become the norm.  Linklaters has expressly stated it hopes to take away the stigma attached to flexibility requests. Ideally this  should encourage men to feel they can help downshift at work in order to equally share household and outside responsibilities without suffering career punishment as statistics suggest it is not common for men to do so.  As firms increasingly institute these policies they will become absolutely critical to the recruitment process for top talent. Firms that adopt these policies now will be able to retain the best lawyers later, as such policies will become a critical differentiator.

Aside from suffering from a lack of flexibility policies, we see a tremendous amount of difficulty for women attempting to return to legal careers. Once a woman has downshifted, it can be nearly impossible to return with any success within the trajectory previously established.  There is reason for hope given the recent focus on “returnships” within the legal community and beyond. The work of Caren Ulrich Stacy and the Diversity Lab’s OnRamp Fellowship  is inspiring, and most certainly is helping to remind firms and companies that they’re missing out on incredible talent when negative assumptions are made about those who temporarily left a workforce known for inflexibility. It seems there could be a fairly measurable impact of piloting these programs within firms.

One perplexing detail that is hard to square with the reality of the difficulty in retaining women lawyers is that data strongly supports robust participation by women.  Evidence suggests that when women are in leadership roles, a company’s bottom line improves.   Furthermore, when women have leadership roles in companies, more women are recruited, promoted and retained.  The fact that many firms and companies are not prioritizing the retention of women and promotion to leadership roles goes against good business sense. While women have a long way to go to obtain a fair percentage of leadership roles in firms, hopefully the success of companies in efforts to elevate women with an eye to profits will be instructive for the legal community.

A flexibility wave could go a long way to changing the culture in firms where women feel relegated and aren’t incentivized to stay on. Women should feel on equal footing with men as they progress through their careers. As with many examples of inequity within the legal community, and despite the data to suggest it is to their benefit to change, assuming firms will self-correct is foolhardy. Clients absolutely hold some keys here—once there is a corporate insistence upon gender diversity—change will likely happen more quickly. Like all consumers with the power of the purse, clients can push firms to make flexibility and the retention of women a mandate.

Stacey and Kristin are the co-founders of The ALT Group, an elite network of freelance attorneys who partner with firms and companies to provide sophisticated legal support.  ALT’s mission is promoting the retention and advancement of women in legal careers.