Undermining Gender Equality: Female Attrition from Private Law Practice

Date01 September 2016
Published date01 September 2016
Undermining Gender Equality: Female Attrition
from Private Law Practice
Fiona M. Kay
Stacey L. Alarie
Jones K. Adjei
The number of women in the legal profession has grown tremendously over
the last 40 years, with women now representing about half of all law school
graduates. Despite the decades-long pipeline of women into the profession,
women’s representation among law firm partnerships remains dismally low.
One key reason identified for women’s minority presence among law firm
partners is the high level of attrition of women associates from law firms. This
high rate of female attrition undermines efforts to achieve gender equality in
the legal profession. Using a survey of 1,270 law graduates, we employ piece-
wise constant exponential hazard regression models to explore gendered
career paths from private law practice. Our analysis reveals that, for both men
and women, the time leading up to partnership decisions sees many lawyers
exit private practice, but women continue to leave private practice long after
partnership decisions are made. Gender differences in leaving private practice
also surface with reference to cohorts, areas of law, billable hours, firm sizes,
and career gaps. Notably, working in criminal law augmented women’s risk of
leaving private practice, but not for men, while taking time away from practice
for reasons other than parental leaves, hastens both men’s and women’s exits
from private practice.
Since the early 2000s women have been graduating from U.S.
and Canadian law schools at about the same rates as do men
(Belkin 2003; Kay & Gorman 2008; Noonan & Corcoran 2004).
Recent data show women’s representation in the legal profession
continues to grow. In the United States, in 2005, women made
up 30 percent of lawyers and in 2012 women represented
This study was funded by a research grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities
Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) and with the cooperation of the Law Society of
Upper Canada. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 2014 Annual Meeting
of the Law & Society Association in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The authors would like to
thank the Law & Society Review editors, the anonymous reviewers, and Carole Silver for
careful and insightful feedback on this research. The opinions contained in this paper are
those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of the Law Society
of Upper Canada.
Please direct all correspondence to Fiona Kay, Department of Sociology,Queen’s Uni-
versity, 99 University Avenue, D-431 Mackintosh-Corry Hall, Kingston, ON, Canada K7L
3N6; e-mail: kayf@queensu.ca.
Law & Society Review, Volume 50, Number 3 (2016)
C2016 Law and Society Association. All rights reserved.
47 percent of law students (American Bar Association 2012). In
Canada, in 2013 women made up 38 percent of lawyers (Federation
of Law Societies of Canada 2014) and in 2012 in the province of
Ontario women represented 49 percent of new bar admissions
(Law Society of Upper Canada 2013). As Belkin remarked,
women “start strong out of the gate” (2003: 44). Yet, despite dec-
ades of women law school graduates, there continues to be a dis-
proportionately low number of women advancing to leadership
positions in law firms (Pinnington & Sandberg 2013). Parity
remains a distance off, with the typical large law firm counting
less than 20 percent of its equity partners as women (Scharf et al.
2014: 4).
The paucity of women in the partnership ranks has been attrib-
uted to high levels of female associate attrition, together with per-
ceived lack of business development (Dinovitzer & Garth 2015;
Patton 2005; Scharf et al. 2014). Donovon claimed that “the single
most important element of women’s inability to make partner is
the high attrition rate of women from firms...women cannot make
partner if they have left the firm” (1990: 142). Numerous studies
have documented women’s high attrition rate from law firms
(Dinovitzer et al. 2009; Hull & Nelson 2009; Noonan & Corcoran
2004; Patton 2005; Reichman & Sterling 2002) and private law
practice more generally (Kay 1997; Kay et al. 2013; Wallace 2001).
This movement is costly for law firms and the lawyers who
leave. Law firms incur a significant cost in the hiring and develop-
ment of junior associates as they strive to retain the legal talent
they have (Preenan et al. 2011). Turnover creates high costs due to
missed contributions of experienced firm lawyers, instability of
departments or teams, disruptions to trusted relations between
firm lawyers and clients, and loss of proficiency (Benson & Brown
2007). The cost of turnover is particularly severe if a component of
the lawyer’s knowledge was strongly firm-specific (e.g., inferred
knowledge of firm culture and business acumen) because this
knowledge is difficult to rebuild or replace (Kacmar et al. 2006).
These costs also extend to personal losses for individual lawyers.
Lawyers invest years in higher education and certification and
often graduate with sizeable student loan debt (Hirshman 2006).
Individuals who leave law after years of investment make a signifi-
cant change of course from their initial career aspirations. Even job
changes between firms or across sectors of practice disrupt individ-
uals’ lives in the short term and may have long-term costs in
regard to earnings and career advancement. For women lawyers,
for example, findings indicate those who have left private practice
incur difficulty to “opt back in” at commensurate job levels (Belkin
2003; Brockman 1994; Law Society of Upper Canada 2011).
Kay, Alarie, & Adjei 767
In response to women’s high rates of attrition, bar associations
and law societies have designed model policies intended to boost
the retention of women lawyers. Some law firms have implemented
programs and practices in efforts to retain women through periods
of their life where full-time work is not feasible. These programs
and practices include flexible work arrangements, parental leaves,
anti-bias training, and options to assist lawyers who leave and
return to private practice (Scharf 2012; Scharf et al. 2014). Recent
reports from law societies and bar associations call for research to
examine retention of women in private practice and to assess poli-
cies aimed at reducing attrition (Law Society of Upper Canada
2011; Williams & Richardson 2010).
Our study offers new insight to job exits that venture from pro-
fessional footing in private law practice. First, we pay close attention
to gender differences in the timing of moves and the factors that
encourage lawyers to leave private practice. Second, we explore the
influence of cohorts and age on exits from private practice. Third, we
incorporate innovative measures to tap the influence of education
factors, including law school debt and law school career preparation,
on job changes. Fourth, we examine the properties of jobs related to
the incentive system, time demands, and nature of work that may
influence job moves out of private practice. Finally, we investigate the
impact of parental and other leaves on women’s and men’s depar-
tures from private practice. Most studies focus on employment inter-
ruptions that are the result of unemployment rather than time away
to pursue other endeavors, and rarely look at gender differences
(Theunissen et al. 2011). Our study is the first to incorporate timing
of precursors to job leaving among lawyers. We turn next to develop
our expectations based on literature that examines timing of job
changes, gender differences in turnover, and causes of turnover
among professionals generally and lawyers more specifically.
Timing of Job Moves
When is movement out of private law practice most likely to
occur? Do lawyers move early in their career, as they explore
legal fields and “test the waters” for establishing themselves? Or,
do job moves take place after a few years, once lawyers have paid
off student loans (McGill 2006) and after they have accumulated
valuable practice experience that they can bring to their work as
in-house counsel or to a new business venture?
Research suggests professionals often switch jobs in the early
years. Novice professionals are perhaps more receptive to change
because this career phase is one of development and exploration, a
time when professionals acquire experience and refine their career
768 Undermining Gender Equality

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