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Leading by Example: 9 Strategies Big Law Can Implement to Retain [+ Promote] Women Attorneys

by | Jun 5, 2023 | Features, Career, Productivity

Lead by Example. Why are women attorneys leaving Big Law at an alarming rate? What actions can law firms take to keep them?

It isn’t enough for Big Law to hire women attorneys. They must get serious about transforming their workplace culture into an environment in which diverse employees can prosper – not just white men.

Retaining and promoting women attorneys isn’t just a matter of fairness—it is a strategic imperative for law firms seeking to thrive in today’s competitive landscape.

Studies consistently show that diverse and inclusive teams outperform their counterparts, bringing fresh perspectives, creativity, and improved decision-making to the table.

Whether you are an attorney, law firm partner, HR professional, or simply interested in fostering gender equality within the legal profession, this article is designed to provide you with actionable insights and practical strategies.

The Obstacles Women Attorneys Still Encounter at Law Firms 

When I think about the things that women attorneys – particularly women of color attorneys – go through at work, it reminds me of a quote from President Barack Obama.

“We have to acknowledge the progress we made, but understand we still have a long way to go. That things are better, but still not good enough.”

A recent survey by Leopard Solutions, The Challenges of Women in Big Law, provide interesting findings. The survey polled women lawyers nearing partnerships in the nation’s top 200 grossing law firms.

Here are a few of the results:

  • 80% revealed that they would leave their firms to pursue greater work-life balance.
  • Many cited that they are still experiencing sexism that’s on par with what their mothers experienced in the 80s.
  • The stress of making high billable hours and lack of firm support in providing maternity leave is driving women out of law firms altogether.

What can law firms do to promote and retain women attorneys?

  1. Create a culture of inclusion.

Implementing DEI initiatives has proven to be challenging for many law firms – big and small. Some firms haven’t fully grasped the importance of inviting women and other diverse groups to the table. While others do not know what it takes to truly create an inclusive workplace.

Fostering a culture of inclusion means creating an environment where every individual, regardless of their background, experiences a sense of belonging and acceptance.

It goes beyond mere diversity; it requires actively embracing and celebrating differences while promoting equal opportunities for all. A culture of inclusion encourages open dialogue, values diverse perspectives, and ensures that every voice is heard and respected.

Here are a few examples of things law firms can do to promote inclusivity.

  • Train partners to see value in every employee – not just the ones who look, act and behave like them.
  • Schedule meetings for times that are conducive for everyone – not too late or too early.
  • Set clear benchmarks to hire, train and mentor their women attorneys.
  • Encourage hiring partners to challenge their own biases by asking questions and listening to understand.
  • Give women attorneys platforms to amplify their voices without criticizing them for having ambitions.

2. Develop mentorship and sponsorship programs within law firms.

Mentorship and sponsorship programs play a pivotal role in the professional development and advancement of women attorneys. These programs provide invaluable support, guidance, and access to growth opportunities.

Mentors offer their expertise, wisdom, and advice, helping mentees navigate the complexities of the legal profession, develop critical skills, and make informed career decisions.

Sponsors, on the other hand, actively advocate for their protégés, opening doors to new opportunities, introducing them to influential networks, and championing their achievements.

Establishing robust mentorship and sponsorship programs can cultivate a culture of learning and support, bridge knowledge gaps, and create a pipeline of talented women attorneys poised for success.

3. Offer flexible work arrangements.

This new generation of lawyers expects different types of work schedules that can accommodate their overall lifestyle. Many aren’t willing to spend their twenties and thirties working 80+ hours each week like the generations of lawyers that came before them.

They don’t won’t to build a thriving legal career at the expense of missing out on opportunities to start a family, travel, and enjoy life outside the four walls of the office. Many view a successful career as the icing on the cake – not the entire cake.

Law firms must find ways to accommodate these preferences. Or risk lawyers leaving the profession in droves and face a shortage of talent to fill the pipelines.

Flexible work arrangements have become increasingly important in today’s professional landscape, including the legal field. These arrangements provide a valuable framework that allows women attorneys to achieve a better work-life balance and meet their personal and family needs without compromising their careers.

Whether it’s remote work, flexible hours, compressed workweeks, or job-sharing, flexible arrangements empower women attorneys to manage their time effectively, reduce stress, and maintain their productivity.

By embracing flexible work arrangements, law firms can attract and retain top talent, promote employee well-being, and create an inclusive and supportive environment that recognizes and accommodates the diverse needs of their workforce.

Moreover, such arrangements foster a culture of trust, autonomy, and mutual respect, resulting in increased job satisfaction and enhanced overall performance.

4. Be transparent about factors that influence attorney compensation packages.

Every employee has the right to know how their employers evaluate them for salary increases and annual bonuses.

Transparent compensation practices are essential for promoting fairness, equity, and trust within law firms, particularly when it comes to retaining and promoting women attorneys.

By openly sharing the factors that influence compensation decisions, including performance metrics, billable hours, and client origination, law firms can create a culture of transparency and trust.

This transparency helps ensure that women attorneys are fairly compensated for their contributions and reduces the potential for pay disparities based on gender or other biases.

Transparent compensation practices also allow women attorneys to understand how their compensation aligns with their peers and feel confident that their hard work and achievements are recognized and rewarded.

5. Provide ongoing leadership development opportunities.

Establishing leadership development programs specifically tailored for women attorneys is crucial for their professional growth and advancement within law firms. These programs provide a structured framework to develop the skills, knowledge, and qualities necessary for effective leadership positions.

Targeted training, mentoring, and networking opportunities can equip women attorneys with the tools and resources they need to excel in leadership roles. These programs can empower women attorneys to navigate the complexities of managing teams, handling challenging situations, and driving firm-wide initiatives.

6. Offer equitable work allocation and assignments.

When work opportunities are equitable, lawyers are given equal access to meaningful and career-enhancing assignments, regardless of their gender, race, or other protected characteristics.

Equitable work opportunities ensure that women attorneys have the chance to work on high-profile cases, complex legal matters, and projects that can contribute to their professional growth and advancement.

It involves considering the skills, qualifications, and interests of attorneys when assigning work, rather than relying on subjective biases or stereotypes.

Equitable work and assignments recognize the value of each attorney’s contributions and create an environment that promotes equal access to career-building opportunities, allowing women attorneys to thrive and reach their full potential within the legal profession.

Best practices for allocating work within law firms include:

  • Track and review each attorney’s skills and development needs.
  • Establish a standardized process to forecast attorney utilization and availability.
  • Implement resource management software to ensure that attorneys are receiving quality work opportunities.
  • Monitor workloads to ensure that attorneys aren’t receiving the same types of assignments for extended periods of time. This will reduce attrition, burnout and underdevelopment.

7. Ensure that the firm has a diverse leadership team.

Having a diverse leadership team within a law firm is instrumental in driving innovation, fostering inclusion, and achieving long-term success. A diverse leadership team creates a rich tapestry of ideas and approaches.

It helps ensure that decisions are made with a broader range of considerations, leading to more comprehensive and effective outcomes. Additionally, a diverse leadership team serves as a role model, inspiring and empowering women attorneys to strive for leadership positions.

By promoting diverse representation in leadership roles, law firms send a powerful message about their commitment to equality and create an environment where everyone feels valued and heard.

Moreover, diverse leadership teams enhance the firm’s ability to connect with diverse client bases and navigate an increasingly global and multicultural legal landscape.

8. Provide supportive maternity and family leave policies.

Law firms must understand that becoming a mother doesn’t diminish a woman’s intelligence, capabilities or capacity to be an exceptional attorney.

Supportive maternity and parental leave policies are vital for ensuring the well-being and retention of women attorneys within law firms. Offer generous policies that recognize the importance of work-life balance and provide the necessary support for attorneys who are starting or expanding their families.

By offering flexible maternity and parental leave options, law firms demonstrate their commitment to supporting attorneys during significant life events while recognizing the value of their contributions beyond the workplace.

Such policies allow women attorneys to take the time they need to bond with their newborns, adjust to the demands of parenthood, and then smoothly transition back to their legal careers

9. Be accountable for promoting gender equality and evaluate progress.

Finally, law firm leaders must commit to evaluating their gender equality initiatives. Accountability and evaluation are critical components of fostering a culture of fairness and promoting gender equality within law firms.

Establishing clear accountability measures ensures that progress towards equitable work opportunities, retention, and promotion of women attorneys is actively monitored and assessed.

It involves setting measurable goals, tracking performance, and holding individuals and the organization as a whole accountable for achieving those goals.

Regular evaluation allows for identifying and addressing any disparities or biases that may exist in work assignments, compensation, or career progression. It also provides an opportunity to recognize and celebrate achievements, best practices, and initiatives that promote gender equality.

Retaining women attorneys is essential for the future of the legal profession. Through meaningful dialogue, action, and continuous improvement, we can make significant strides towards a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive workforce.



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