The Fight Against the Attrition of Women Lawyers

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“Within 5 years of being called to the bar, 57% of women and 49% of men will have left private practice. Many will move to in-house or government positions, but close to 30% (28% of women and 29% of men) will have left the practice of law entirely.” – Law Society of Alberta (2014): “Retention and Re-engagement Task Force Final Report”

The “Retention and Re-engagement Task Force Final Report” reveals that the number of young lawyers has remained stagnant. There are fewer lawyers between the ages of 31 and 40 practicing in 2010 than there were in 1990. In contrast, the number of lawyers over the age of 60 has tripled in the last ten years.

The attrition of young lawyers is problematic. As the Task Force points out “The private bar in Alberta is losing lawyers who may be among its best a brightest new members to other practice settings and to less stressful work outside of the legal profession.” The primary reasons for leaving practice were: the pursuit of better work/life balance; more rewarding opportunities elsewhere; and dissatisfaction with the practice of law. 

The Task Force reports that “Women were notably less satisfied than men with control over work, credit for work, opportunities for advancement and the mentoring available them.” Interestingly, Ontario studies have shown that the cost of associate turn-over is staggering. The cost of a fourth year associate leaving is estimated at $315,000.

In the CBA article “Why Women Leave“, it was reported that:

In 1993, the Canadian Bar Association published the first national examination of women in the profession and concluded that law firms were not “environmentally friendly” for women and must lose their “maleness” by overhauling a business model that was long ago built by men for men.

The 326-page report, entitled Touchstones for Change, found that women earned less than men, didn’t advance as quickly, and often felt they had to choose between family and career.

Fast forward a quarter of a century and large swaths of the report could still be written today. While men and women graduate from law school and work side by side as associates in equal numbers, three-quarters of law firm partners are still white men, according to the think tank Catalyst.

Most recently, the documentary Balancing the Scales explored five generations of women lawyers over two decades, finding that discrimination has shifted from overt to subtle, but remains ingrained.

Despite the statistics, I am optimistic for the future of women lawyers. In the article “Why is there a gender pay gap in law?“, it is pointed out that many clients are now considering diversity as a metric for engaging law firms. Additionally, as traditional models of work are being shaken up by technology, more people are asking how much of the way we work can be reimagined. “This investigation into the specifics of the gender pay gap by industry feeds into a broader debate: Do we need to work the way we do?

(Views are my own and do not represent the views of any organization.)

 

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