03/20/2014 12:24 EDT | Updated 05/20/2014 05:59 EDT

Where Have All the Female Lawyers Gone?

For more than a decade, women have been entering the legal profession in record numbers. In Canada and the U.S., women constitute approximately 50 per cent of law school students, and according to the Federation of Law Societies of Canada, the majority of lawyers who have been in practice five years or less are women.

But instead of moving toward partnership, women are leaving the profession in droves. Those who remain often become in-house counsel at corporations or government agencies, non-profits or educational institutions, where the focus typically isn't on face time or billable hours. As a result, women account for less than 20 per cent of partners in North American law firms.

This issue affects almost every law firm's bottom line. And with a Canadian labour shortage expected as soon as 2020, retaining senior female lawyers is becoming increasingly important. To keep top talent and remain competitive, firms must develop policies to ensure that talented practitioners -- both men and women -- have the flexibility to raise families, care for aging parents, and devote time to personal needs.

Several studies reveal that the leading reason for this exodus is work-life balance. The Catalyst report "Beyond a Reasonable Doubt: Creating Opportunities for Better Balance" indicated that 75 per cent of female associates and 69 per cent of female partners found it difficult to manage the demands of work and personal life.

Male associates may also find it difficult to manage conflicting demands, but they are more likely to have partners who don't work outside the home, or have flexible job arrangements. In many such cases, the spouse manages all the demands of family life, absolving the working lawyer of domestic responsibilities and permitting him to focus almost exclusively on work. This is rarely the case for women, who must generally shoulder both work and family life.

The Law Society of Upper Canada's Working Group on Retaining Female Lawyers in Private Practice reported in 2008 that "although both men and women identify time spent with their family as the aspect of their life that gives them the most satisfaction, maintaining demanding law careers often conflicts with family life and is the most common reason for leaving law practice."

The report also found that "women [in law] are particularly affected by the unavailability of support and benefits such as part-time partnerships, part-time employment, predictable hours, job sharing and flexibility in hours."

Yet, many of these women care passionately about law and want to continue practising. A change in management approach is clearly needed -- preferably driven and enforced by senior partners -- to allow lawyers to maintain work-life balance without either overt or covert damage to their careers.

Women now constitute nearly half of the North American workforce, and in nearly half of households all adults work, but the business model of most Canadian law firms has not evolved to reflect this significant social change.

Although certain practices and files demand frequent travel, long hours, or work that must be done face to face (for example, litigation and corporate law), other aspects of the profession can be done independently or remotely (wills, estates, and pensions). As such, the traditional billable-hours model (and its associated culture of long and unpredictable hours, and being constantly on call) doesn't have to remain the primary or even the only method used within a firm. It is possible to incorporate work models that allow associates to leave the office at a foreseeable time on most days and to make weekend and vacation plans.

One innovative model that permits part-time work or time off to have a family is the "lifestyle-driven virtual team." Technology enables team members chosen for their complementary skills and knowledge to stay connected and to work from any location, thus rewarding productivity and results over face time while allowing professionals to optimize their personal time. It removes the emphasis on billable hours and instead focuses on the number of hours each associate wants to work, with compensation tailored accordingly.

Although virtual teams are not yet commonplace in the legal profession, research suggests they should be. In the Catalyst report "Beyond a Reasonable Doubt: Lawyers State Their Case on Job Flexibility," 69 per cent of lawyers who had never used a flexible work arrangement said they wanted to, and 86 per cent of those who had used one said they wanted to do so again. Yet, 50 per cent of respondents also thought their firms were doing "poorly" or "very poorly" in providing such arrangements.

This does not bode well either for retaining senior female lawyers or attracting the next generation. In a recent study, Prof. Alison Konrad of the Richard Ivey School of Business asked undergraduate business students how an employer could make their chosen career more attractive. Most of the respondents were women in their early 20s, and the most frequent responses they gave were flexible hours, the ability to work from home, less face time and a family-friendly culture. Whether in leading business or in top-flight law firms, career-oriented young women have similar challenges and needs.

With the appropriate cultural shift and best practices, virtual teams can work for many firms, practice areas or specific files -- especially when the model is supported by firm leadership. Sometimes, a relatively small shift in policy can facilitate more flexible work arrangements. For example, certain firms have internally imposed constraints on sharing the workload because the leadership prefers to minimize the number of associate names on a client bill, but this is a matter of protocol rather than necessity.

Although several associates may have the expertise to work on a given project interchangeably, the culture prohibits them from doing so. Partners can also be reluctant to bring in less revenue per associate, but smaller firms have learned to do so in order to keep talent. Some firms could also reap benefits by viewing and treating their associates less as commodities and more as individuals who require and deserve balance between their personal and professional lives.

Although law firms often strive to create an equal-opportunity workplace, many are still consciously or unconsciously discriminatory. Some female lawyers worry about having children before making partner and/or being removed from rewarding cases or from the partnership track if they take maternity leave, while others feel anxious that those who fill in for them during maternity leave could start to campaign for their jobs, making it more difficult to return to work. These concerns undoubtedly shape their professional experience.

This work climate comes at a high price to both individual firms and the profession as a whole. According to the Catalyst report "Reasonable Doubt: Building the Business Case for Flexibility in Canadian Law Firms," the financial cost of an associate's departure is approximately twice that person's annual salary. In addition are the intangible costs of losing senior practitioners who take with them years of training and hard-earned relationships with clients, disrupting internal dynamics and client relationships alike.

It is therefore in every firm's best interest to remediate attrition. The high cost of losing clients and attracting new ones ensures that most firms go to great lengths to keep current clients happy. By extension, retaining female associates is far less expensive than developing new ones. As such, firms should strive to keep their current employees happy, even if it means accommodating some with flexible work arrangements.

While some firms maintain unrealistic billing targets, others recognize that attracting top clients and enjoying a widely varied, high-level practice should not necessitate the exodus of female lawyers. Firms that implement true work-life balance initiatives often report reduced employee attrition, greater productivity and morale, higher work quality and client satisfaction, and substantial savings in recruitment, replacement and training.

As social change takes hold in the legal profession, as it has in other professional services, and as lawyers begin to demand more control over how, when, and where they work, forward-looking firms that embrace variations of lifestyle-driven virtual teams will secure a competitive advantage in attracting and retaining the best and brightest minds the profession has to offer.


WXN's Most Powerful Female Leaders