Saturday, March 1, 2014

Retention And Promotion Of Female Attorneys – What Can We Do Better?

By Amanda B. Buffinton and Meredith A. Freeman

In February, the National Association of Women Lawyers issued its “Report of the Eighth Annual NAWL National Survey on Retention and Promotion of Women in Law Firms.” The survey polled 200 large law firms regarding the progress of female attorneys compared with their male counterparts. Survey at p. 1. The results demonstrate that despite the high number of female law school graduates for the past few decades, women are still not strongly represented in the highest ranks of law firms. Id. at p. 4. Law firms reported the “perceived lack of business development and high rate of attrition as the two primary reasons why the number of women equity partners has not been increasing.” Id. at p. 5. 

Certainly, female attorneys do not leave the practice of law more often than men simply because they do not like to practice law. Additionally, female attorneys have the same ability to generate business as male attorneys.  Therefore, law firms need to understand and combat attrition and lack of business development by female attorneys. As a starting point, it can be assumed that law firms will continue to hire female attorneys as associates.  In fact, the 2010-2011 data from the Directory of Legal Employers Diversity and Demographics Report of the National Association of Legal Placement revealed that approximately 43 percent of law firm associates were women.   

Assuming this trend of hiring continues, the focus turns to retention and promotion.  What can law firms do better to retain female attorneys and give them a seat at the boardroom table? 

First, law firm leaders need to fully embrace the proven premise that including female attorneys in firms and treating them fairly is a profitable business model. Attrition can be a large cost to law firms. However, according to Gerry Riskin, founder of law firm consultancy Edge International, “Most firms are oblivious” to attrition costs, and although “that expense is unacceptable, [law firms] have been accepting it.” 

Second, law firms need to ensure that their method of evaluating business development by attorneys fairly credits both the attorney who brought the work to the firm and the attorney who manages the client relationship, which ensures that future business continues to flow in.

Third, firms should develop methods to track work assignments to ensure that women have the same opportunities to participate in significant, high-revenue matters as male attorneys. 

Finally, promoting female attorneys to equity partnership and opening doors that allow women to participate in law firm governance provide women a greater incentive to stay in practice and serve as an example to younger female attorneys who are trying to climb the ranks.