Monday, March 20, 2006

Why do women leave law firms?

A recent NY Times piece is asking the right questions, but is frustratingly slim on answers.
“People explain it simply as the fact that women have children, but so many other factors play into it … ”

Great, what are those factors? Well, they mostly seem to be poorly defined and explored intangibles.

The “roadblocks” seemingly include “errant mentoring, opaque networking opportunities, low-grade case assignments or arbitrary male control of key management committees”.

But then we’re back to discussing the:
“ ‘maternal wall’ on female lawyers … built on the unstated assumption among male partners that women who return to firms after having children will automatically be less willing to work hard …”
Okay, accounting firms apparently do better:
“Deloitte & Touche … has promoted and retained women by offering flexible working schedules, leadership development and career planning programs, and transparent and dedicated mentoring ... Deloitte also maintains generous sabbatical policies and outreach practices so that women who depart the firm to raise children have an easier time re-entering the work force — and rejoining Deloitte — when they are ready to do so.”
This sounds great, but is not explored in any more detail. So what’s the bottom line problem with law firms? Billable hours. Quelle surprise.
“Research … has also identified an inflexible, billable-hours regime as an obstacle to job satisfaction for both sexes, a trend that is more pronounced among the most recent crop of law school graduates.”

“… analysts says [billable hours are] increasingly cropping up as an issue for male lawyers as well ... Billing by the hour requires lawyers to work on a stopwatch so their productivity can be tracked minute by minute — and so clients can be charged accordingly. Over the last two decades, as law firms have devoted themselves more keenly to the bottom line, depression and dissatisfaction rates among both female and male lawyers has grown … many lawyers of both genders have found their schedules and the nature of their work to be dispiriting.”

Try downright depressing. One female colleague described her first two years in a law firm as “monkey work”: an intellectually unexciting hard slog a chimp could perform.

But wait, suddenly the key problem isn’t gendered? It’s just billable hours? At some levels this seems plausible, but only if you assume some men simply don’t notice not having a life beyond work, and hence more men stick around to make partner.

So, how did one successful two-partner marriage balance work and family, especially with one child with a learning disability?
“[They] engineered this by cutting back on their social calendar, sharing household chores and making sure that at least one parent was home for dinner most nights.”
Good on them for making it work, but forgive me if I think this vision of an absentee household staffed by help and family seems a bit grim. Yet this is the best life in a law firm can offer.

One quote that really rang true?
“Law firms like to talk about running the firm like a business … but they’re running on an institutional model that's about 200 years old … Most law firms do a horrible job of managing their personnel, in terms of training them and communicating with them.”
Indeed, their sink or swim mentality coupled with a business model that assumes a 30% staff churn rate has little need for retention or engagement with its “fee earners”. The day firms acknowledge they have an actively failing human resources model is the day any of this may change, for men or women.

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