Legal News Analysis: Surveys Show Women Lawyers Leaving Big Law for Smaller Firms and Varied Endeavours

Topics: Corporate Legal, Diversity, Law Firms, Midsize Law Firms Blog Posts, Small Law Firms, Surveys, Talent Development, Women’s Leadership Blog Posts


They may be leaving Big Law, but women aren’t leaving the law altogether. Instead, women are jumping to small and midsize firms or starting a solo practice. At least, that’s the upshot from several new surveys of women in Big Law in 2016.

The most-talked-about new survey reveals that 34% of lawyers in large law firms are women — a number that just hasn’t budged over the years. Indeed, that 34% represents an improvement of less than 1 percentage point over the past five years, according to ALM’s Female Scorecard.

And women aren’t leaving Big Law to have children either — instead, they’re trickling out every year in all age brackets, for varied reasons. “Women have significant opportunities elsewhere in the law, such as in the judiciary and starting solo practices,” said Kat McKay, founder of McKay Research in New Jersey, which specializes in insurance. McKay herslef left Big Law in 2004 and started her own firm, while also enrolled in a Ph.D. program.

Women’s Pay Continues to Lag

Most disappointingly, women lawyers’ pay remains stubbornly lower than men. In 2004, women earned 73.4% of men’s weekly salaries; a decade later, in 2014, they earned 83% of men’s salaries, according to the American Bar Association’s Current Glance at Women in the Law this year.

And in the partner suite, the typical female equity partner in the 200 largest firms earns 80% of the compensation of the median male partner, the ABA found. At the equity level, women make up only 18% of equity partners in Big Law and only 8% of employees earning more than $500,000 in annual salary, the ALM survey added.

And the tolerance for that kind of inequity is growing thin. Late last month, a lawsuit claiming gender discrimination was filed against Sedgwick LLP, a San Francisco-based firm with more than 300 lawyers.

The suit, which is seeking class action status, was filed by Traci Ribeiro, a non-equity partner in Chicago, claims that “Sedgwick denies female attorneys equal opportunities for promotion and compensates them less than male attorneys” and that the firm’s “male-dominated culture systematically excludes women from positions of power.”

Leaving a Firm for Varied Reasons

Indeed, the latest surveys suggest the prevailing narrative on women in the law may be incorrect.

“Women do not appear to be leaving the law disproportionally in key childbearing years or at partner promotion years,” the ALM Female Scorecard noted. “Instead, what the data reveals is a slow but consistent departure. This suggests that the reasons why women are more likely to leave the law than their male counterparts may be more complicated and more diverse than initially thought. It also suggests that law firms will need to approach the issue of increasing female retention more creatively than they do now.”

The ALM database reveals that women trickle out of Big Law by a few percentage points per year as they age: among 30-year-old lawyers at Big Law firms, women comprise 45% of attorneys. Among lawyers who are 40 years old, however, women only comprise 41%, a decrease of four percentage points. By age 50, women only make up 27% of lawyers.

Personally, Heather Russell Fine’s experience bears out what the latest Big Law surveys have found for women lawyers. She left Eckert Seamans for a midsize firm, Griesing Law, so she could expand her practice to include work in addition to the automotive legal matters she does. Notably, she didn’t leave due to children. “I’m grateful to have had both opportunities, as the Big Law training is second to none. After 15 years of doing the same type of work — product liability and automotive defense work — it was time to be able to work on a few other types of cases,” she said.

Interestingly, Francine Griesing, who started Griesing Law, sued her former law firm Greenberg Traurig in 2012, alleging she was told to look for other employment after complaining about the firm’s compensation policies and the “boys club of origination” that kept women from billing as many hours as men. Her lawsuit led to a $200 million class action. Both parties eventually reached a confidential settlement.

Russell Fine explained that a higher percentage of women are seeking to practice in a different environment, like she did. “I left not for childbearing reasons but for a new path,” she said, adding that the leaving-to-have-children narrative too often prevails and harms women’s advancement in law.

“That’s often the spin, but it’s hard to say why that’s true,” Russell Fine added. “My experience — based on my friends and my colleagues — is that women are leaving Big Law, but they’re not leaving the law in general.”