Walk into one of the country’s largest law firms, and you’ll see a stark picture of the gender gap in leadership. While men and women attend law school in nearly equal numbers, women at the partnership level—the top ranks of private law firms—is still below 20%, according to the 2012 national survey of the National Association of Women Lawyers. And it hasn’t changed since the reporting began more than five years ago.

Other statistics show that between 30 and 45% of women leave the legal profession mid-career. So, what’s the reason for the drop-off? Why do so many women leave the law, and is there anything that can be done to encourage more women to achieve leadership positions in the field?

We sat down with Susan Smith Blakely, a retired law firm partner and author of Best Friends at the Bar: What Women Need to Know About a Career in Law and Best Friends at the Bar: The New Balance for Today’s Woman Lawyer, to learn more—and to get her advice for any woman considering a legal career today.

 

The percentage of female partners at law firms is startlingly low. Why do you think this is?

The reason for the disparity in numbers between men and women at the partnership level is predominately that the work-life struggle affects women differently than men. Women typically come up for partnership consideration at about 8-10 years into their practices, and this, coincidentally, is about the same time that their biological clocks start ticking away loudly. Some women, who are interested in having children and participating significantly in the day-to-day interactions with their children, leave law firm practice at that time for what they perceive as more family-friendly settings.

Others stay at the law firms, and some do make partner, but those who go on to have children in the first years of their partnerships experience great challenges in meeting the responsibilities of their professional and personal lives. Many end up leaving the professional altogether, and some choose to return to the non-partnership ranks and to part-time or flexible hour schedules. As a result, the number of women ascending through the ranks of partnership to leadership positions is reduced significantly.

Is the legal profession doing anything to address these issues?

Law firms and law organizations are addressing these issues, but it is not an easy sell at law firms. Issues like flexible schedules, part-time partnership, on-site daycare, and the time that lawyers work on alternative schedules being credited as “practice time” for partnership consideration all impact the bottom lines at law firms. Law firms are first and foremost businesses, and opting for these alternatives is not always seen as good business in terms of driving profits.

However, firms are becoming much more receptive to the ideas as the result of client pressure—mostly from corporate counsel—many of whom are women and minorities who are insisting on seeing more diversity in their representation and at the top levels.

 

What are the biggest issues that new women lawyers face? And moving forward, what are the biggest issues they face a few years down the line?

In addition to the work-life struggles, new women lawyers face a male-dominated profession. Although overt discrimination is now against the law, there are many kinds of covert practices that end up impacting women differently than men. Male practitioners very often feel more comfortable on a team with male lawyers and traveling with male lawyers, and this can disadvantage women in case assignments. Again, law firms are grappling with this issue, but it is a human nature issue and hard to pin down and to solve.

Women lawyers also must learn how to promote their work as effectively as possible and practice those skills throughout their careers. Women are much less likely than men to identify successes as their own than as the product of a group effort. Men will say, “I won the motion,” and women will say that “We won the motion.” Saying “I won” is most often not accurate because successes in this setting are usually a team effort, but women also must learn to communicate their successes more effectively.

Moving forward in their careers, developing new business for the law firm is the biggest factor in gaining respect and power. Women are great communicators and great networkers in their personal lives, and they need to learn how to transition that to their professional lives. Women must also learn to assess and embrace risk more as they advance in the practice. That is often more difficult for women, but it is part of the mark of an accomplished attorney.

 

What advice would you give to women who are thinking about their careers and deciding where to work?

Young women lawyers and law students need to address their personal needs up front when considering their career plans. If children are in your futures—or if you know that you will have responsibility for other family members—you may want to look at practice settings beyond law firms. Some of those settings, like in-house counsel, practice in nonprofit organizations, and public sector practice, provide greater opportunities for flexible time, part-time practice, and less travel and stress.

If you do choose the law firm route, you should consider the kinds of practice areas that may be more compatible with the personal responsibilities that you anticipate. Litigation, both civil and criminal, and merger and acquisition practices tend to be very stressful and inflexible, whereas code practices like tax and bankruptcy, as well as non-litigation settings like transactional work and estates and trusts, may prove more advisable.

In short, you need to ask yourself what you want for the future. You need to be questioning yourself about your goals and objectives, for both your personal and professional lives, and you must craft personal definitions of success. Your choices and decisions will come much more easily if you proceed with that in mind.

 

What advice would you give to women just starting out at a law firm? What are some important first steps to set yourself up for a successful career?

Throw yourself into your practice and become the best lawyer you can be. You will leverage off of that for the rest of your career, and it will create value at the law firm that may give you greater power at the bargaining table when you are asking for flexibility or other considerations down the road.

Also, learn to network and promote work. Do it in your professional life and in your personal life. Do it at bar association functions, do it at trade association functions, do it at your health club, and do it at the daycare center when you are picking up your child. Lawyers with work they need to refer to other lawyers as well as other potential clients are everywhere, and you must let them know that you are there to meet their needs.

And finally, find a mentor or mentors. And don’t limit yourself to female mentors—ideally, it is best to be mentored by both women and men. Women mentors can teach you about creating the team mentality, embracing compromise, toughening up in dealing with aggressive personalities, and how to avoid the pitfalls when it comes to dealing with the offensive behavior of men. On the other hand, male mentors can teach you the winner-takes-all mentality that you also need in your repertoire to be successful, and they can prepare you to deal with the many male lawyers and judges that you will encounter in your practice. Both of these mentoring models are critical to a well-balanced future as a lawyer.

What advice do you wish you could give your younger self, just starting out in the legal field?

Be less sensitive and vulnerable to criticism. Be confident in your abilities and stress your skills. Be a risk taker. Embrace the project that makes you stretch, and fight to get on that case or matter. Do not let anyone or anything get in the way of your goals and objectives.

 

For more from Susan Smith Blakely, check out her books, Best Friends at the Bar: What Women Need to Know about a Career in the Law and Best Friends at the Bar: The New Balance for Today’s Woman Lawyer, her website, and her recent articles on The Huffington Post.

Photo of courtroom courtesy of Shutterstock.