Experienced Women Report Dissatisfaction at Law Firms

The numbers are in on women’s long-term careers in the law—and they aren’t pretty.

More than 50 percent of law school students are women and some 45 percent of associates at law firms, too. But less than 20 percent of those women ever make partner, Roberta Liebenberg, who heads the American Bar Association’s Presidential Initiative on Achieving Long-Term Careers for Women in Law, said Aug. 3 at an ABA panel during its annual meeting in Chicago. Liebenberg is a senior partner at Fine Kaplan and Black, Philadelphia.

Liebenberg and others announced the results of a new survey examining why those discrepancies exist. The final report will be out in September.

The results suggest that women 20 years out of law school are dissatisfied with their access to business development opportunities, salary, and access to mentors, among other things.

It highlights that women and men have very different experiences in the legal workplace.

The results will be used to seek structural changes at law firms that will help them reach gender parity among their partners, Liebenberg said.

The survey was addressed to the largest 350 law firms and focused on managing partners and other lawyers who were 20 years out of law school.

Sexual Harassment

The survey showed the biggest difference in work life between men and women related to sexual harassment.

Forty-nine percent of women surveyed said they’d received unwanted sexual contact during their careers. Only 6 percent of men had experienced the same.

Moreover, 28 percent of women said they avoided reporting the contact. That’s compared with just 1 percent of men.

Gender Bias

But the differences are broader than sexual harassment.

With regard to gender bias in general, 66 percent of women said they lacked access to business development resources. Only 10 percent of men said the same.

Fifty-three percent of women thought they’d been denied a salary increase or bonus. Men—only 4 percent.

Finally, 46 percent of women said they lacked access to mentors. Only 3 percent of men felt the same way.

These differences have likely lead to frustrations that push women out of law firms, Liebenberg said.

Law Firm Change

Previous surveys show that younger female associates are more satisfied with their careers than their male counterparts, Joyce Sterling, a senior researcher for the ABA initiative and professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, said.

Three, seven, and 12 years out, women are more satisfied with their decision to join a law firm than men, Sterling said.

That suggests that the survey has touched on the point where women’s frustrations about their experiences convert into dissatisfaction, Sterling said. At that point, women are just saying “forget it,” she said.

All of the things that women were dissatisfied about—pay, business development, and mentorship—are all within the control of the law firms, not the attorneys, Stephanie Scharf, who also leads the initiative and is an attorney at Scharf Banks Marmor LLC, Chicago, said.

The ABA Initiative will use the results to suggest changes to law firms in its September report, so that this conversation won’t have to be repeated ten years from now, ABA president Hilarie Bass said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kimberly Strawbridge Robinson in Washington at krobinson@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jessie Kokrda Kamens at jkamens@bloomberglaw.com