Why Are Women Lawyers Unhappy?

Published: Mar 21, 2013

 Workplace Issues       
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March is Women’s History Month (and, it seems, Sheryl Sandberg month—at least this year). Vault took a look back at our most recent Associate Survey, in which nearly 17,000 associates at law firms from across the country rated their firms in areas such as satisfaction, hours, compensation, diversity, and associate/partner relations. And in nearly all of these areas, women rated their firms lower than did men.

In fact, the only area in which women’s average ratings were higher than men’s was formal training. Meanwhile, women’s ratings for firm culture, satisfaction, diversity, informal training and mentoring, compensation, business outlook, associate/partner relations, work hours, and transparency lagged behind their male counterparts’.

Just as worrisome are the disparate satisfaction levels between male and female associates as they rise through their firms’ ranks. Both men and women rate their satisfaction levels highest during their first year at the firm, and both men and women experience a significant drop in satisfaction between years one and two (Toto, we’re not in law school anymore!). Satisfaction continues to drop gradually until after the fifth year, when for men, satisfaction rises quite a bit throughout the sixth and seventh years, while women remain stagnant at their fifth-year low point. The only time when satisfaction levels match up for men and women is during the eighth year.

So what does all this mean, and why is it happening? First, many female associates feel that it is impossible to have a family and make partner—and so they take themselves off the partnership track, even before they have children (in other words, they’re the poster children for not “leaning in”). Here’s what a few sixth-year female associates had to say in our survey:

  • “There is certainly a belief among women associates that you can either have a family, or be a partner—not both.”
  • “A disproportionate number of the female partners are childless. It seems extremely difficult to be a female with a child and make partner. The male partners almost all have children.”
  • “It is a friendly, welcoming atmosphere for people of different races, ethnicities and sexual orientations but I feel as a woman attorney that I should not even try for partnership because it won’t be possible with a child.”

Second, female associates complain that their male counterparts have different—and better—opportunities for business development, important assignments and mentorship (again, all these quotes come from 6th-year female associates):

  • “I do not feel that work gets distributed fairly among associates (particularly between men and women associates), from case to case or within each team.”
  • “Much of the focus [of the firm’s women’s initiative] is on work/life balance and alternative hours arrangements which is most meaningful if you have kids (which many women at the firm do not). I wish they would address issues that apply to all women, like communication strategies, selling work in what is still often a man’s world (at the client level), building a network, etc.”
  • “If there were more women here then we’d likely have more female partners and I would have more women to look up to as mentors.”

Finally, a common complaint among senior women associates is that their potential for making partnership is not clear enough:

  • “I enjoy what I do, and I really like the people I work with. However, I am very unsure and concerned about my long term career potential at this firm.”
  • “Partnership requirements seem to be changing, but nobody will actually admit that anything has changed, nor will anybody tell us what the actual expectations are.”
  • “There is almost no hope of making partner here, and that influences my satisfaction and long-term goals.”

Perhaps women need to do a better job of claiming a seat at the table and pursuing their goals, as Sandberg argues. Maybe, as Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote, firms need to do a better job of creating “better models and possibilities of fitting work and life together.” Or—most likely—both are right. What’s less debatable, however, are the numbers: the most recent Vault/MCCA Law Firm Diversity Survey found that women represent approximately 45% of associates, but only 20% of partners. Moreover, only 32.5% of partners promoted in 2011 were women (granted, this is an increase from 2010, when 29.71% of partners promoted were women).

So is there any good news? For starters, some firms—such as our 2013 Top Law Firms for Diversity with Respect to Women, have created innovative and far-reaching programs and policies to address some of these issues. For example, Carlton Fields has implemented a 360-degree review process in which associates rank their practice group leaders on how well they promote diversity; these reviews are a factor in compensation. Ropes & Gray sponsors a Women’s Forum to provide a venue for its female attorneys to support each other in issues related to advancement and development, by hosting programs on networking, business development and communications skills. And just this week, five Vault 100 law firms (Fenwick & WestOrrick, Herrington & SutcliffeSidley AustinSkadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, and Weil, Gotshal & Manges) signed on as platform partners of Sandberg’s Lean In community, which aims to provide women with inspiration and support to help them achieve their goals (of these five firms, Fenwick, Sidley Austin, and Weil were rated within Vault’s 2013 Top Law Firms for Diversity with Respect to Women).

What do you think are the factors contributing to women's dissatisfaction with their firms? And what should they—and their firms—be doing about it?