Why Are Women Leaving Big Law?

Leopard Solutions’ Women Leaving Law report provides a picture of the complex business and cultural landscape that women lawyers and their employers face as they continue their efforts to achieve gender equity in the legal profession.

200 women lawyers, 8% of whom are based outside the U.S. and the rest across 36 states and Washington, D.C., took the Women Leaving Law survey.

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More than 90% of the respondents worked for a law firm during their careers, and 78% of those women had worked in Big Law (the biggest and most prestigious law firms in the U.S.). A majority of the respondents were in the middle of their careers, with more than 60% between the ages of 35 and 55, which is considered the prime time to for a lawyer to advance to partnership and the leadership of a firm.

Many of the reasons cited by the survey respondents for why they left their Big Law positions were to be expected. These include microaggressions, gender biases, billable hour target pressure, lack of mentorship, preservation of mental health, unequal pay, isolation, long hours and unpredictable schedules, lackluster career trajectory prospects, and insufficient work-life balance.

Respondents were particularly frustrated by a perception that their law firms did not support them and the lack of a work-life balance. 90% of survey respondents said that workplace culture was the main reason why they quit, with 82% blaming lack of flexibility and lack of work/life balance.

“Female attorneys have to work harder to achieve the same goals and show twice the commitment of their male counterparts,” said one respondent. “Work-life balance is more difficult to attain for female attorneys because they often have more obligations both inside and outside of work without the same amount of support.”

Although more than 60% of respondents said they had wanted to become partner early in their careers, in a sign that many women feel shut out of advancement opportunities, 74% also said that the trajectory of their careers drove them to leave their current firms.

Surprisingly, although three-quarters of survey respondents said they were mothers, nearly 70% reported that staying home with their children had little or nothing to do with their decision to leave their jobs in the industry.

In addition, only 20% of respondents said the pandemic was a key factor in deciding to leave.

The survey responses suggest that firms may not have effective practices in place to support women lawyers, despite what they may think.

"Law firms are at an inflection point,” said Christy Tosh Crider, partner and leader of the women’s initiative at Baker Donelson. “Either we're going to adapt and be the place where people, who are in touch with what they want in their career and with what they want in their life, see a path that feels successful to them, or we're going to get passed by."

It's clear that law firms will need to make fundamental changes to stem the tide of departures by women. Otherwise, they risk falling even farther behind when it comes to gender equity.