Generation Shift: Recruiting, Managing & Retaining the Millennial Lawyer
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Published by the ARK GROUP. Original article can be found at this link:


The Current Landscape: ‘The female lawyer exodus’

One only has to scan recent media headlines to recognize that the legal profession is facing challenges when it comes to retaining and advancing women: “The Least Diverse Profession in the Nation. And Lawyers Aren’t Doing Enough to Change That”, “The Female Lawyer Exodus”, “Why Women Don’t Make Partner.”

Even though women are earning half of all law degrees in many countries, they are still leaving the legal profession in “droves” later on in life. Take the US, for example: more than 57 percent of lawyers leave private firms before their fifth year of practice, and the majority of this group are women.

Carla Varriale, a name partner at New York City firm Haykins Rosenfeld Ritzert & Varriale, LLP (HHRV), states: “The dirty little secret is the number of women that drop out of the profession in their fourth or fifth year, that big cliff that so many go over the side of is shocking. Women leave the profession in droves before they mature as attorneys, before they have the opportunity to specialize, before they can develop clients of their own, or certainly before the point that they are prepared to assume a leadership role.”

The legal industry is not alone in this battle. In 2014, the International Consortium for Executive Development Research (ICEDR) asked a cross-industry group of leading global companies to share one of their most pressing talent priorities. The answer: retaining women five to ten years out of university.

In response to the challenge, Lauren Noel, Director of Women’s Leadership Initiatives at ICEDR and I forged a collaborative global research effort to help organizational leaders better understand what women value: why they leave and why they stay.

The Cost of Attrition: Financial & Client Loss

The legal industry cannot take the loss of women lightly. The estimated cost to a firm when an associate leaves is $400,000. As former lawyer Marlisse Silver Sweeney states: This cost “is amplified by the fact that so many more women are leaving their firms. It’s not just a social issue for the firms, but a financial one as well”.

In addition to the financial cost of departure, the business case for change is also based upon an increasingly diverse buyer base. In my recent discussions with clients, I have seen executive leadership within the industry grapple with a common question: how can their largely homogeneous male partnerships effectively develop and sustain relationships with the increasing percentage of female clients?

Their concern is valid. In both my research and advisory work, I have observed that clients often prefer to engage service providers who understand their unique preferences and interests. In addition, clients often prefer to work with organizations with workforces that reflect their own demographics. As women’s buying power increases, a pressing case for change is made.

Deborah L. Rhode, the director of the Center on the Legal Profession at Stanford University, states: “The legal profession supplies presidents, governors, lawmakers, judges, prosecutors, general counsels, and heads of corporate, government, nonprofit and legal organizations. Its membership needs to be as inclusive as the populations it serves.”

Similarly, the UK’s Telegraph newspaper poignantly summarizes the implications of a diversifying client base: “As the demographic profile of clients changes – with more women signing the pay cheques for legal fees – so too will firms have to remain conscious of diversity.”

What Women Want

With a clear business case for retaining female talent, the question that logically follows is: what factors influence the attrition of female talent? In our research, we identified key themes that reflect the factors that attract, motivate, and retain women. Many of these themes are attractive to emerging leaders – male and female alike.

Our conversations revealed five main themes of what women desire at work:

  1. “Know me”: Invest the time to understand me as a person, including my passions, interests, desires, and needs, both in and out of work.
  2. “Challenge me”: I need to grow and continue my learning through new challenges and see multiple paths to advancement.
  3. “Connect me”: I want to interact, collaborate, and build relationships with a dynamic network of peers, leaders, mentors, coaches, and sponsors.
  4. “Inspire me”: I want purpose from my workplace from which I derive a sense of meaning.
  5. “Unleash me”: I want to lead initiatives, have my voice heard, experiment, and use my entrepreneurial flair.

Furthermore, what is interesting is that our findings have been reinforced by recent studies specifically focused on the legal profession. Industry-specific research has highlighted that the needs and desires of emerging women leaders in legal fields are reflected by the themes in our women’s advancement model, as described below.

  • Know Me”: Women in the legal industry want to be understood as a whole person, including their needs both in and out of work. A 2007 report by the M.I.T. Workplace Center found that the number one reason female attorneys gave for abandoning the partnership track was “the difficulty of combining law firm work and caring for children in a system that requires long hours under high pressure with little or inconsistent support for flexible work arrangements”. A recent study of Harvard Law School grads also found that women were not satisfied with their level of “control”, which included work and personal life integration.
  • “Challenge Me”: When it comes to being challenged, the Harvard Law School study found that while women were more satisfied than men with opportunities for building skills and intellectual challenges, they were more dissatisfied with opportunities for advancement and performance evaluations, including feedback.
  • “Connect Me”: In regard to connectedness, substantial evidence suggests that exclusion from informal networks of support and client development remain common for women within the legal profession.
  • “Inspire Me”: Women in the legal profession are also seeking more inspiration, purpose, and meaningful work. The Harvard Law School study found that women were more likely to report dissatisfaction in not finding the legal work ethically/socially fulfilling. The lack of women partners has also contributed to a lack of role models, while lower compensation coupled with more hours worked has led to women feeling that their contributions are not valued, recognized, and rewarded appropriately.
  • “Unleash Me”: Finally, the Harvard study discussed the movement of law graduates away from the “practice of law” as well as the profession being “disrupted” by a series of innovations – “many of which are being developed by lawyers turned business entrepreneurs”. This movement, including the increased number of lawyers turned entrepreneurs, may be partly explained by the fact that both men and women express dissatisfaction with the control that they exercise over their work in the legal industry. There is a clear opportunity to build workplace cultures that prioritize autonomy and ownership, unleashing the talents and entrepreneurial flair of emerging leaders.

The Path Forward: Understanding & Addressing Attrition

The themes “Know Me”, “Challenge Me”, “Connect Me”, “Inspire Me”, and “Unleash Me” were common threads in our conversations with not only emerging women leaders, but also with top talent across gender and generational lines. By focusing on the things that matter most to the next generation of women leaders, organizations will simultaneously improve their cultures and workplaces for all.

Many firms are already rising to the challenge, addressing barriers to women’s advancement and retention head on, while creating workplace cultures, policies, procedures, and programs that meet the desires of emerging women leaders. “New model firms” or simply “NewLaw” are diverging from the traditional law firm model and embracing lower hourly rates, little to no billable hour requirements, flexibility in where and when work is done, cultural changes, and new compensation and rewards models. The American Bar Association’s ABA Journal highlights that, according to an informal review of these firms in the US, UK, and Canada, many of these firms are enjoying a higher proportion of female attorneys and female partners, with reduced attrition.

For firms wanting to follow suit, understanding the root causes of attrition is critical to the success of any change effort. As an ABA Presidential Commission on Diversity recognized, an “assessment” of the current state is an essential component of any diversity initiative. Deborah L. Rhode states: “Leaders need to know how policies that affect inclusiveness play out in practice. That requires collecting both quantitative and qualitative data on matters such as advancement, retention, assignments, satisfaction, mentoring and work/family conflicts.”

As part of our research, we have created an audit framework leaders can use to begin to assess the extent to which their organizations are focusing on the things that matter most to your emerging female leaders. Understanding how top talent rates their employer across key indicators can lay the foundation for data-driven, evidence-based diversity initiatives rooted in the needs and desires of a firm’s most critical asset: their people. How does your firm measure up?

Once leaders understand the drivers of attrition within their organizations, they have the opportunity to address them through targeted leading practices and innovative solutions. As highlighted in our report, leading companies are addressing the desires of women through a wide variety of cultural, programmatic, policy, and procedural changes, including:

  • Providing employees with a platform and framework to identify and articulate their interests, passions, and needs;
  • Helping women build the skills to express these needs and ask for what they want, while engaging leadership support in creating a workplace that supports employee transparency and “asks”;
  • Building a “results driven” culture of flexibility – focusing on output rather than where and when those results are produced;
  • Offering multiple paths for advancement;
  • Giving employees a chance to recharge and reflect through paid sabbaticals;
  • Connecting emerging women leaders with a dynamic network of peers, advisors, and advocates;
  • Creating “intrapreneurship” opportunities – where women can develop innovative ideas to improve the firm and its service delivery; and
  • Refining and broadly communicating the organization’s mission and vision.

Through seeking to better understand, challenge, connect, inspire, and unleash women in the industry, leaders have the potential to save significant turnover costs, attract a broader base of clients, and fuel their organizations with insights, innovative ideas, energy, and ambition of increasingly critical talent pools.

As Baroness Kingsmill, member of the UK’s House of Lords, states:

The practice of law should be about fairness, equality and social justice, and yet the profession itself continues to be segmented by gender…. Dominated by white males, the legal profession looks anachronistic in today’s diverse society, failing to represent, in its composition, the society it purports to serve. One of the most glaring pieces of evidence of this is the paucity of women at the top of law firms, despite the fact that they recruit women and men in equal numbers.”

It is time to change this picture. Understanding and addressing attrition is the right place to start.

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