Why Do So Many Women Leave Private Practice Before Making Partner?

The drop is dramatic: at least half of all new associates at large law firms are women, yet women make up less than 15% of equity partners at those same law firms. Nothing, to my knowledge, suggests that women are rejected in partnership evaluations more often than men, which suggests that women leave on their own steam more often than men. I’ve seen this myself, both inside the firms I worked for and among the women I have mentored since leaving big firm practice. The traditional explanations run along these lines:

  • Women find it harder than men to integrate work and family in workplaces that discourage efficiency, such as those that  measure service primarily by hours billed
  • Women are less willing than men to want to continue putting in the kind of time required of senior big firm lawyers because they define themselves more holistically;
  • Women find it culturally easier to leave firms, especially once they have their second child, then men do.  Motherhood provides them with social “cover” that fatherhood does not, at least not yet.
  • Big firms are still, in general, relatively sexist institutions whose basic structures renders the HR departments less effective in addressing sexism than they might be in different organizations.

What do you think of these explanations? Total BS? Valid in your view? Somewhere in between? What are we leaving out?

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