Big Law’s Diversity Hunt Hindered by Exodus of Women

According to data from the legal consultancy Leopard Solutions, in 2021, only 35% of women who left one of the top 200 law firms in the U.S. joined another Big Law firm—in 2022, that number has plummeted to 28%. Instead, women leaving Big Law firms are tending to take in-house positions because they say it gives them more control over their careers.

This data is a major blow to the diversity goals Big Law firms have set for themselves, and they will need to consider the factors driving women away if they ever hope to achieve those goals.

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Sonya Olds Som, the global managing partner for the Legal, Risk, Compliance & Government Affairs practice group at executive search firm Diversified Search Group, says this may mean taking a harder look at how firms are structured and operate.

Women who have left Big Law in the past have often cited the aggressive push for billable hours as a primary reason for their exodus. Moving in-house gives lawyers the opportunity to be proactive versus reactive without the pressure of billable hours.

“The hours to be billed, and therefore the money to be made, came due to emergencies,” says Dionne Greene, senior counsel at Simon & Schuster Inc., who left Big Law firm Proskauer Rose in 2000. “That’s when you really made your money because you had so many more hours. So there was profit in chaos. So that created situations where you worked over the weekends, during holidays, very late nights, or very early mornings. Because there’s a crisis and as a result, you had to throw a lot of people and a lot of time to solve it.

Olds Som also says attorneys, especially women, are leaving Big Law firms for in-house roles because the skills valued by each kind of employer are so vastly different. In-house attorneys tend to have a much wider variety of work to do and a lot less crisis management to take part in.

Lauren Rikleen, president of the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership, a consultancy group on workplace culture, says an added benefit of going in-house is that in-house counsels don’t have to worry about someone stealing their clients or not giving them credit, which has long been a problem for women in Big Law.

“You’re not fighting with somebody over client credit. You don’t have to worry that if you go out for dinner with a potential client that another person in your firm is going to try to take all the credit for bringing in that client’s work,” she said.

Where Big Law culture is typically inflexible and lagging when it comes to change, in-house culture is more nimble, said Olds Som. So if Big Law firms hope to retain their women attorneys, they will need to find clever ways to be more competitive with in-house opportunities and decide what changes they are willing to make to their old-fashioned cultures.