Supporting and Retaining Mothers in Law Firms


By Gene Commander
Gene Commander Inc.

Note: This article is part 1 of a two-part series on the ABA’s recent parenthood report.

Law firms nationwide are battling to attract and retain productive talent in the face of growing labor market challenges, particularly dwindling law school enrollment, retiring baby boomers and high attrition rates. A commonsense yet often overlooked strategy to address the rapidly shrinking talent pool is to embrace a greater role in firms for female lawyers. The number of female lawyers has been ticking steadily upward, and women under the age of 40 now outnumber their male counterparts among actively licensed attorneys in Colorado.

Unfortunately, the data show that law firms have substantially failed to support and retain female lawyers. For example, in a survey by Above the Law, half of female associates said they planned to leave their job within one to two years, compared to just one-third of male associates. Further, law firms have not succeeded at recognizing and elevating women. Nationwide, women account for roughly a quarter of law firm partners and a scant 12% of managing partners. And men predominate among lawyers earning over $150,000 yearly, with disparities growing even larger at higher income levels.

Law firms, simply put, are squandering a valuable resource by neglecting to establish family-friendly policies and cultures that attract and retain female lawyers. The consequences are severe: In addition to suffering high costs associated with attrition, law firms are wasting the effort they have dedicated to developing female lawyers and losing valuable relationships built with clients. Without successfully retaining female lawyers, law firms will struggle to build the bench strength that will allow them to weather unexpected challenges, capitalize on emerging business opportunities and develop future leaders. Catch-and-release talent models will, in the end, deprive law firms of the staffing needed to meet client expectations.

To better support and retain women, firms need to understand the challenges facing women. Fortunately, a recent report from the American Bar Association answers that need. Legal Careers of Parents and Child Caregivers: Results and Best Practices from a National Study of the Legal Profession is based on a survey of over 8,000 members of the legal profession and a series of focus groups. The survey findings should be of great interest to law firm leaders and all those interested in supporting women’s legal careers. Given that the ABA has identified family caretaking commitments as the main reason women leave positions at law firms, many of the ABA’s findings and recommendations (which are presented in part 2 of this series) focus on measures to support working mothers.

First, the ABA finds that mothers are much more likely than fathers to confront negative experiences at work. These undesirable experiences are wide ranging and include less compensation, reduced access to career opportunities and disparaging comments about their level of ambition and ability. For example, 43% of mothers in law firms as compared to 20% of fathers lacked access to business development opportunities. Further, a much greater proportion of mothers in law firms (60%) than fathers (25%) thought they were perceived as less committed to their careers. And 36% of mothers compared to 22% of fathers were denied or overlooked for advancement or promotions.

Next, the ABA observes that mothers are significantly more likely than fathers to face tensions between parenting and their careers. Nearly half of mothers — 48% — felt that having children had negatively affected their legal career, compared to just 21% of fathers.

Not coincidentally, the report notes that “mothers are far more likely to carry the double duty of child care and household responsibilities.” For instance, 65% of mothers compared to 7% of fathers are responsible for arranging child care; 47% of mothers compared to 17% of fathers are responsible for leaving work for children’s needs; and 22% of mothers compared to 8% of fathers are responsible for looking after children in the evening.

And not surprisingly, the ABA finds that mothers experience greater stress and burnout than fathers due to the difficulties in shouldering both family and career responsibilities. Seventy percent of mothers working in law firms “almost always” or “often” feel overwhelmed with everything they must do, compared to 41% of fathers.

These results show widespread and highly concerning obstacles to women’s participation and advancement in law firms. Although the data focus on mothers with dependent children, women who are looking toward possible motherhood may be keenly aware of these challenges and steer clear of law firms when making career decisions. Also important to note is the well-established obstacles that women face in the legal profession regardless of whether they have children.

However, it’s not only women who struggle to navigate the twin demands of work and family life. The data also show a worrying degree of challenges experienced by men. For example, 41% of fathers in law firms “almost always” or “often” feel overwhelmed with all the things they need to do, which is a striking number, even if less so than the 70% figure for mothers.

It’s clear that law firms need to better support mothers — and caregivers of all stripes — if they are to meet these lawyers’ needs and retain a productive talent pool. So, armed with the insight provided by the ABA report, what changes should law firms make? The ABA has identified a robust suite of best practices, and they will be the subject of part 2 of this series: “Dismantling the Obstacles Facing Mothers in Law Firms.” Look for it in Law Week Colorado next month.

Gene Commander is an executive business counselor for the legal industry, with a special focus on Smart Growth in Action: 2030™ through proactive business growth strategies for law firms. He has more than 40 years of experience in the legal profession while practicing construction law with small, midsize, regional and national firms. Gene’s past roles include serving on the management committee of a midsize firm and as managing shareholder in the Denver office of an Am Law 100 firm. Through Gene Commander Inc., he now helps law firms stay ahead of the curve by adapting to shifting economic, demographic and professional trends. He can be reached at [email protected].

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