America’s Women Lawyers Need an Even Playing Field to Stop Their Attrition

The higher a woman rises in a law firm, the greater the chance she will be one of the few females in the room.

America’s Women Lawyers Need an Even Playing Field to Stop Their Attrition
Women comprised 37 percent of all lawyers nationwide in 2020, and make up only 24 percent of large law firm partners. And women of color are 14 percent of law firm associates but not even 4 percent of law firm partners. (Shutterstock)

The legal profession has a problem. Women now graduate from law schools in larger numbers than men and are hired at law firms in roughly equal numbers as men. Yet women comprised 37 percent of all lawyers nationwide in 2020, and make up only 24 percent of large law firm partners. The higher a woman rises in a law firm, the greater the chance she will be one of the few females in the room.

And these numbers only get worse for women attorneys of color: In fact, women of color are 14 percent of law firm associates but not even 4 percent of law firm partners.

The American Bar Association (ABA) has been studying this issue and has found that many talented, experienced women lawyers are leaving their jobs. Specifically, ABA research shows, too many women who have been practicing law for 15 years either leave their law firms and move to a different legal job or leave the practice altogether because of a combination of factors that accrue over time.

A new ABA report, In Their Own Words: Experienced Women Lawyers Explain Why They Are Leaving Their Law Firms and the Profession, details the reasons for these extreme professional choices at a time when women should be at the prime of their careers and reaping the rewards of legal partnership. The reasons include:

  • Unfair compensation. Women in the study’s focus groups and individual interviews reported that law firm compensation was “rife with bias” and “blatantly unfair.” Indeed, several female lawyers reported being told that they were making less than their male counterparts because the men have to support a wife and kids, in spite of our assumptions that such thinking went the way of “Mad Men” and the fact that many of the women in the study are the main breadwinners in their family.

  • A “hypercompetitive culture” and a “bullying atmosphere” that erode collegiality. Said one in-house lawyer:“I’d rather stick needles in my eyes [than go back to a law firm because of] the billable hours, the sharp elbows and the very competitive environment.”

  • A feeling of isolation driven partly by the lack of women in law firm leadership. “I don’t feel like I have anyone in a position of power who can personally relate to me,” one female lawyer said.

  • A feeling that they are working in “male clubs,” and subject to sexist behavior. As one interviewee said, “[It will take] men being uncomfortable when there is an absence of women in the room. Men are not uncomfortable yet.”

  • A lack of flexibility in working time combined with long hours. “Inflexibility pushed women out of their firms, while flexibility retained them,” the report found.

On the positive side, both women who left the profession and those who stayed agreed that practicing law was intellectually stimulating and allowed them to forge rewarding relationships with colleagues. They also valued the help they provided to their clients, professional autonomy, their social impact and the money they made.

Perceptions of Progress Differ

The report is the third recent ABA report about achieving long-term success in the law for women lawyers. Research from the first study in 2017 showed, among other findings, that although firm leaders and male partners believe their firms do well in advancing experienced women, those women disagree. As just one example, 84 percent of managing partners surveyed agreed that their firms have succeeded in promoting women into leadership. Seventy-five percent of experienced men agreed, whereas just 55 percent of women agreed.


Although firm leaders and male partners believe their firms do well in advancing experienced women, those women disagree.


The second report, from 2020, focused on women of color. That study showed that female lawyers of color surveyed were far more likely to want to leave the profession than their white colleagues; were more likely to be subjected to both implicit and explicit bias; and were more likely to report factors that blocked their “access to success,” including access to business development opportunities, being perceived as less committed to career and being denied or overlooked for promotion.

We Know How to Turn This Around

America’s Women Lawyers Need an Even Playing Field to Stop Their Attrition
Female lawyers stay in jobs where the culture, policies and practices foster their success and career satisfaction. (iStock / kzenon)

The new report sets forth 11 steps that law firms can take to turn this situation around. They include:

  • developing a strategy and setting targets to meet it;
  • providing resources to relieve pressures from family obligations that are faced more often by women than men;
  • assessing the impact of firm policies and practices on female lawyers; and
  • ensuring that there is a critical mass of female partners on key firm committees.

The ABA, which has been led by 10 women presidents, including four of the last five, knows that female lawyers stay in jobs where the culture, policies and practices foster their success and career satisfaction. The entire association, and the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession, work to secure the full and equal participation of women in the profession and the justice system. In addition to timely reports, studies and recommendations, we offer toolkits on engaging men as allies, developing a grit and growth mindset, and combating sexual harassment.

The legal profession has had much success attracting women to the field and hiring female attorneys at the junior level. Now we need to follow through on making law firms places where experienced female lawyers thrive and are treated equitably.

Let’s use the clarity that this report provides to bring balance and fairness to the professional lives of female lawyers. The profession and the country will reap the benefits from all of its members contributing all of their careers in the pursuit of justice. 

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About

Patricia Lee Refo is president of the American Bar Association, the largest voluntary association of attorneys and legal professionals in the world. As a partner at Snell & Wilmer in Phoenix, Refo concentrates on complex commercial litigation and internal investigations. She chairs the firm’s Professional Liability Litigation Group. From 2014 to 2016, Refo was the ABA’s second highest-ranking elected official as chair of its policymaking House of Delegates. She received her B.A. with high honors and high distinction and her J.D. cum laude from the University of Michigan.