Elena Deutsch spent seven years as a career coach and leadership consultant hired by law firms to advise rising associates. During that time, most of the associates she coached one-on-one were women.
“When I would ask them about their partnership goals, whether they wanted to make partner, many would look over their shoulders, and kind of lean in and ask if they could really talk to me about this,” Deutsch said. “And when I assured them of confidentiality, they would share that they weren’t sure.”
So in 2016, after coaching two women through the process of leaving their respective firms, Deutsch developed the idea for Women Interested in Leaving (Big)Law (WILL). The coaching platform is designed for the senior woman associate “who loves life and wants to spend it outside the billable hour,” according to its website.
WILL, currently priced at $1,497 for complete access, is structured as a self-paced online curriculum supplemented by one-on-one coaching and live office hours during which women can share stories and network with each other. So far seven women have signed up, according to Deutsch, an indication that the program is not causing an avalanche of women to leave their firms.
Deutsch said her business is no attack on law firms, and she rejected the notion that she might be in competition with law firm diversity professionals trying to recruit and retain women. The two efforts are “not mutually exclusive,” according to Deutsch.
“Helping women who want to stay and have amazing careers in big law firms and helping women who want to leave can co-exist, and should co-exist, because it’s the business model of big firms that people leave,” she said.
It’s no secret that law firms are struggling to retain women in both the associate and partner ranks. But the firms that spoke with Big Law Business said they don’t see coaches like Deutsch as a threat.
Kristine McKinney, chief professional development officer at Fish & Richardson, said she doesn’t see a conflict between her work and the career counselors who help lawyers transition out of law practices they find unfulfilling.
“I don’t want to start from a premise that women have to or will be leaving faster or more regularly than men,” said McKinney. “But at the same time, we know people leave BigLaw, so the fact that there’s a niche of somebody working with women, I don’t think there’s a conflict.”
In some cases, law firms even welcome coaches who can help attorneys transition out of their firms smoothly, according to Caren Ulrich Stacy, former director of professional development at Arnold & Porter.
“I can count dozens of times when the law firms I worked for helped a person who wanted to leave find the next best thing,” said Stacy, now a legal industry diversity consultant.
Even when the goals of the firm and the attorney don’t align, coaches like Claire Simier Karsevar say their goal is to defuse tension.
“If you’re hired by a firm to retain a top woman lawyer and that woman at the end leaves, the role of the coach is to make sure there is a dialogue between the client and the firm so it doesn’t come as a surprise to anybody,” said Karsevar. “You make sure that people talk.”
A former BigLaw associate who recently transitioned in-house said she planned to leave her firm before enrolling in the WILL pilot program this past summer. She asked that identifying details be kept off the record, citing the policy of her current employer.
“If you look at someone like me, I was never going to choose to stay at a law firm,” the former associate said. “Whether I had Elena or not, hopefully at some point I would have left.”
The former associate said she never mentioned her job search to her law firm colleagues out of fear of getting fired, a decision Deutsch said is not uncommon among her clients. Deutsch also said women have confided in her that they feel guilty about leaving their firms, “especially if they feel indebted to a partner or shareholder or a mentor who has taken them under their wing.”
Many firms boast about their alumni networks, and, from a firm perspective, it makes sense to help attorneys leave on good terms, according to Deutsch. But that perspective isn’t always shared by the individual partners who work with and train associates and who may be upset by their decision to leave.
“There are firms who say they will help you but women don’t trust that if they tip their hand they won’t be buried under crap work and won’t have the time to make the transition,” said Deutsch.
There are signs this is changing. Big Law firms are increasingly hiring in-house career coaches to guide their attorneys in an attempt to bolster their alumni networks.
When young lawyers go to one of Kirkland & Ellis’s two full-time career coaches for advice, their conversations are kept confidential and their career search information “locked down,” according to Chiara Wrocinski, Kirkland’s senior director of legal recruiting and professional development.
Wrocinski said there is no risk of partners punishing young attorneys for wanting to leave because “they know they can’t ask us who’s working with us.”
“One of the fears initially was that people are going to have a bad day, talk to the career coach, see some great job opening and go out the door,” said Wrocinski. But that fear hasn’t played out, she said.
Nevertheless, career coaches still believe they have a role to play outside of firms.
“It is the rare firm that is going to be understanding and supportive,” said Liz Brown, author of Life After Law. The former BigLaw partner now provides career counseling to lawyers hoping to leave the practice. “I’ve heard of it happening but it’s not normal.”
Deutsch and Brown both said the most common complaints she hears from women in BigLaw are the constraints of the billable hour and the isolating work of their legal practice. Deutsch said her female clients also worry about the stigmas they might face if they choose to leave.
Brown believes law firms shouldn’t be worried about the women seeking career counseling. Rather, they should address the “chronic problems” within the legal industry, she said.
“When people come and hire me, they’ve generally been unhappy for a long time,” said Brown. “They’re not unhappy because of me.”
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