Women in the Legal Field: Their ‘Dropping Out’ Isn’t Just a Motherhood Issue

January 13, 2022

In this earlier Your Voice article, the author portrays women attorneys as exhausted perfectionists who aren’t team players or leaders. Like many readers, I was concerned by the portrayal of female attorney attrition as a motherhood problem. Amongst other issues, the article places the burden of reducing female attorney attrition squarely, and unfairly, on the shoulders of mothers. 

We wanted to share our thoughts on the ABA article with our audience. Female attorney attrition is an incredibly important topic for us (and for the legal industry as a whole) – and there are so many misconceptions. Consider, for instance, that the entire premise of the argument put forward in the ABA article can be debunked with one statistic: Men are two to five times more likely to become partners even when compared to women who never took time out for family

This position is bolstered by the attrition rates of women of color in the legal profession. If it’s ‘just’ a motherhood issue, then women of color would leave their positions at the same rate as all female attorneys. However, that’s not the case. In fact, women of color leave the legal profession at a higher rate than any other demographic. 

With this in mind, the conclusion that female attorney attrition is a ‘motherhood problem’ is untenable. Equally untenable is the stance that it’s a woman problem. No, female attorney attrition is a complex, multifaceted industry problem. 


ABA President Patricia Lee Refo, in her compelling rebuttal to the views outlined in the earlier article, highlighted the implicit biases, pay disparities, and lack of opportunities women attorneys are faced with, before touching upon some potential solutions. As a co-founder and Managing Partner at the women-led, WBENC-certified law firm CGL LLP, I felt compelled to provide further information for law firms looking to stem the tide of talented, female attorneys leaving the practice of law. 


First, Firms Must Identify and Address Challenges Faced by Female Attorneys.

Industry research has shown time and time again that there isn’t one singular reason that women attorneys leave legal practice in droves. This means that there isn’t a simple fix for the exodus of female attorneys. Instead, firms will need to adopt a multi-dimensional approach that contemplates a range of common challenges.

As a starting point, firms might consider: 

  • Developing systems that address the inequitable distribution of high-quality work.

Female attorneys have consistently reported inequitable access to the opportunities that their male counterparts receive. If your firm still relies on partners to distribute work to their preferred associates, it is time to rethink your model. Your firm must devise a method of distributing work that offers female associates, and particularly associates of color, access to the work that will help them get noticed and promoted. 

Equally, you must come up with a model that fairly distributes the less desirable tasks. Women attorneys are more likely to be asked to undertake administrative tasks and other non-revenue raising assignments than their male counterparts. There are a number of implicit biases that lead to this, including the perception by men that women are more organized or better suited to that kind of work and the perception by female attorneys that they can’t say no to work allocated to them. By setting up processes to allocate this work, you can avoid issues that arise as a result of such biases. 


  • Eliminating the gender pay gap.

The pay gap is a hot topic globally. It’s increasingly becoming seen as an unacceptable practice, with more governments enacting legislation requiring equal pay for comparable or substantially similar work. Your firm should be taking steps to minimize its pay gap, starting with a pay-equity audit. This involves taking the time to investigate your current pay practices, identify inequities arising from biases towards protected categories of workers, and rectify those inequities. 


  • Providing support to attorneys with family commitments. 

While family commitments are not the root cause of all female attorney attrition, the reality is that the lion’s share of household management continues to fall on women. Women attorneys have shouldered much of the burden of childcare and housework throughout the pandemic. Meanwhile, women attorneys of color report that their extended family responsibilities do lead to unique challenges in managing work-life balance in the legal profession.

While the household burden largely being carried by women is a societal issue that must be addressed and will take time to change, law firms can and should be making accommodations for female attorneys to help alleviate those pressures. Firms must commit the provision of flexible work arrangements in a manner that won’t impact an attorney’s career trajectory. They should also allow attorneys to work from home – and cut their commute time – to provide the extra hours they need to manage their households and family responsibilities while billing the hours they need to progress. At the same time, it is critical that the attorneys taking advantage of flexible working arrangements are given equal access to high-value work and other career advancement opportunities. 

Similarly, attorneys who work on part-time schedules should still have clear pathways to advance their career and should not be penalized for their schedule by receiving lower quality work. Again, having processes in place to distribute work equally can help reduce the risk of this occurring. Firms should also identify and address promotion metrics that hinder career advancement for female attorneys with family commitments. 


Then, Firms Must Chart a Path for Female Attorneys.

Female attorneys must also be supported through the ranks by male and female partners, including attorneys of color. To achieve this in the short term, you may need to contemplate making diverse hires of female partners, including women of color. Women should have women role models in leadership positions to both guide them up the legal ladder and to better advocate for equality. 

Furthermore, individuals in management and leadership positions should receive regular education and training on these key issues. Decision-makers must be aware of and alert to the no-problem problem and how invisible biases can impact outcomes. In developing an understanding of the impact of language on the perception of women in the workplace, discrimination against women, and sexism, leaders are better equipped to identify and address it.

Finally, law firm leaders must recognize that the talent drain resulting from female attorney attrition is unsustainable. Companies in other industries are taking advantage of the immense benefits of diversity in leadership, while the legal industry continues to watch its female attorneys march out the door – never to return. Clients are already starting to demand more from law firms than just billable hours. They are demanding creative problem solving, innovation, and increased value. These demands correlate with the recognized benefits of diversity. And without talented women, the law firms which fail to make changes today will languish.


This article was penned by Noam Cohen in response to the pieces penned in the ABA Journal. 

Noam Cohen co-founded CGL, a fully distributed transactional law firm, in 2017 after leaving her role as Director of Business Development at a late stage startup in San Francisco. She had previously practiced law as a Corporate Associate with Goodwin in Menlo Park, California.  

CGL is committed to providing quality legal services to its clients and meaningful work-life balance to its attorneys. In doing so, CGL hopes to address some of the most significant challenges faced by legal professionals, including burnout and female attorney attrition. Noam’s legal practice focuses on providing transactional support to companies in all stages of development.


The materials available at this website are for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. You should contact your attorney to obtain advice with respect to any particular issue or problem. Use of and access to this website or any of the e-mail links contained within the site do not create an attorney-client relationship between CGL and the user or browser. The opinions expressed at or through this site are the opinions of the individual author and may not reflect the opinions of the firm or any individual attorney.

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