Top Lawyer to Investigate Legal Profession’s Gender Problem

Before Hilarie Bass, co-president at Greenberg Traurig, began her tenure as president of the American Bar Association in August, she had already raised over $350,000 for her signature agenda item: a national research study to find out why women leave their careers in the law.

Specifically, the president-elect hopes to find out why so many women leave law firms around the age of 50, when they are at a high point in their careers. This attrition, she says, is what has kept the numbers of women in law firm leadership and equity partnerships so low.

The project, which will launch in November, is called Achieving Long-Term Careers for Women in the Law. Funding has come primarily from law firms, according to Bass, with whom said she has “touched a nerve” with the project.

“It’s a tremendous resource drain,” she said. “If there is anything law firms can do to stem that tide, they’re interested in figuring it out.”

Bass said she views implicit bias and pay inequity as some of the biggest impediments to women’s success in the law, and she hopes to capture some of that with the study.

The research will take place in 2017 and 2018, and will focus on three core areas: the long-term career trajectories of female lawyers, an analysis of the personal and structural factors that impede women’s success in the law, and a study of women who have changed careers after 20 years or more in the law.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Big Law Business: What exactly will this ABA initiative be looking at?

Hilarie Bass: What we know is that although women are now the majority of law students, and that when they enter practice they’re about 50 percent of the employed law grads, over time, women leave the profession at much higher numbers than men. By the time women are age 50 it’s down to 25 percent of the profession that are women.

So we’re having a first of-its-kind national, longitudinal study to try to figure out why women are leaving BigLaw. Is there something we can do to keep them? And when they leave, what is it they’re doing instead?

We have PhD social scientists who are overseeing this. They will be ensuring we have appropriate sample sizes of all the relevant groups, people who left, people who stay, etc.

Hilarie Bass
Hilarie Bass

BLB: Where has the funding come from?

Bass: The ABA doesn’t typically utilize membership dues for projects of this kinds. In this instance, we’ve been successful in raising over $350,000 from lots of law firms and some in-house people. I think we’ve really touched a nerve. There are a lot of people who want to figure this out. What can we do to make sure we don’t lose women at the point in their career when they have the most expertise? It’s a tremendous resource drain. If there is anything law firms can do to stem that tide, they’re interested in figuring it out.

We’re breaking it all out and announcing it in detail at a conference at Harvard Law School on November 7 and 8. It’s an invitation-only conference where we’ll be inviting managing partners, in-house [lawyers], and senior women who will talk about what kept them and why they chose to stay.

One of the things that we want to highlight is how important it is for law firms to ensure that this talent group stays there.


BLB: What do you see as the biggest barriers to advancement for women in the law? What have you seen?

Bass: I can tell you that my own personal experience at my law firm is that the more women you have in leadership positions, the more young lawyers perceive there are opportunities for them. Having women in leadership positions creates a hospitable environment where more women are inclined to join the firm… and stay because they see that there is more opportunity for them.

I can tell you that women in general, I think, still are dealing with inherent implicit bias that’s deeply entrenched in our society among men as well as women. I think today most people perceive correctly that most of the explicit bias is gone, whether it’s out of political correctness or belief that certain behavior is inappropriate. But implicit bias can trickle into things like promotions, etc. that I think are the cause of the statistics we have seen, that women historically and consistently make less money than men in the practice of law.


BLB: You’re one of very few women who have made it to the top of law firm leadership. Do you feel like you still face barriers because of your gender?

Bass: I wouldn’t describe it as barriers because of my gender, because I think I’ve achieved a certain level of success. I don’t see it as a significant impediment. But behaviorally, do people treat me differently because I’m a woman, whether it’s with a client or discussion of community leaders? Absolutely, and I think any woman will tell you that.

I will know we’ve arrived when the average hard-working woman attorney can do as well as the average hard-working man. There are lots of examples of superstar women that break through all the barriers, and that’s great, but we’ll know we’ve made real progress when just the middle-of-the-road average hard-working smart attorney can do just as well as a comparable man. The stats that show women [in the law] make about 80 cents on the dollar, also show that women work about 8 hours more per week.


BLB: Among the women leaving BigLaw, have you noticed any uptick in women starting their own firms?

Bass: I don’t see that very often. I understand anecdotally that it occurs, but I certainly haven’t seen it in my law firm. On the other hand, I think women do perceive that there’s lots of opportunity in-house and I think there is a much higher proportion of women GCs than women managing partners, and that goes to the idea that if there are women in leadership positions, you’re going to attract more women. Women leave and go in-house in part because of a perception that there may be more opportunities there. Or it may be a more objective meritocracy than they may find in law firms.


BLB: Do you think success in law firms is less meritocratic and more relationship-based than corporate environments?

Bass: That’s hard to say. I don’t think I can make a blanket statement. There are some law firms where that’s very relevant and others less so. I think that’s more cultural.


BLB: What do large firms like Greenberg Traurig need to do to address gender (and other) biases in the industry?

Bass: Part of what we’re looking at [in the ABA study] is to see if we have any new ideas about it, but one thing I think we definitely need to do is much more implicit bias training. I don’t think people perceive that they are failing to be objective in their analysis, but study after study says that if you change the names on the resume from a male to a female name you get a different response on a resume. That if you do a pitch for venture capital funding and you make the same statement in a women’s voice and a man’s voice, the man is going to get more offers. And we have lots of examples that tell us even when we are attempting to be objective and we think we’re creating opportunities, we know we have to dig deeper so that decisions are based on truly objective criteria and not on unconscious assumptions about the way someone is going to behave.

Most law firms assume that their criteria is completely objective and what we know is that these biases infiltrate even the best efforts at being objective.


BLB: What is Greenberg Traurig currently doing?

Bass: We’ve had at least two or three nationally recognized people come and give implicit bias training to our shareholders. It’s always a very eye-opening exercise. People start by saying, ‘Oh why are we doing this,’ and they end by saying, ‘Oh wow I had no idea.’

We have a whole women’s initiative that attempts to help both women and men address these issues, and one of the things we’re very proud of is that we’ve made a real conscious effort to elevate women. I was the chair of the litigation practice group for 8 years, which is the largest practice group in the firm. We continue to have a number of practice group chairs that are women, as well as managing partners, and me as co-president.


BLB: Do you have any specific programs to limit biases, in areas like performance reviews or recruitment?

Bass: We haven’t implemented those types of things as of yet. We’re constantly looking at our evaluation process and how we can improve it.


BLB: Several years ago, Greenberg Traurig was sued by a former shareholder for gender bias. Since then, a few other firms have been sued for similar reasons. Many of the most recent lawsuits concern the issue of equal pay. Do you think there is any benefit to these industry issues being litigated publicly?

Bass: I think the level of interest in [the ABA] project is reflective of the fact that many law firms realize that we need to do better, to retain and promote women, so I think the amount of support we’re getting is a recognition that everybody is looking for the answers to how we make sure that women remain in the profession and are treated fairly and objectively. My hope is that we can really move the needle in a significant way by coming up with a study that gives us some of the answers.

As a litigator, I typically don’t think litigation is the most effective tool to create policy change, and I’m hopeful that these study results will provide an alternative. Because if we rely on individual lawsuits it’s going to take a long time to make the kind of progress that I’m hopeful will be achieved.


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