Women lawyers in New Jersey are more likely to quit if their law firm does not have flexible work arrangements, and they are gravitating toward firms that do, says a new survey of women lawyers across New Jersey.
Women "are no longer willing to stay and 'get along,'" says the study released May 4, "Legal Talent at the Crossroads: Why New Jersey Women Lawyers Leave their Law Firms and Why They Choose to Stay."
The survey, consisting of anonymous interviews, was conducted by the State Employment and Training Commission Council on Gender Parity in Labor and Education, in conjunction with Rutgers University's Center for Women and Work.
The report ends with a series of "best practices" recommendations for improving retention of women lawyers.
"In the past, so many studies have shown that women were leaving law firms, or the legal profession altogether, but this study provides a new perspective -- that women are taking action by seeking and finding better work/life balance at firms that provide flexibility and a positive environment," says Dianne Mills McKay, chair of the employment and training council.
Such job-switching can be costly for law firms, the report says, citing studies that put the replacement cost of an attorney at $200,000 to $500,000. Because many lawyers leave before their firms make a profit on them, retention of attorneys for an extra two or three years can greatly benefit profitability, the report said.
Firms that do retain women lawyers experience better recruiting, greater productivity, improved client service and reduced expenses from turnover, says study co-author Terri Boyer, executive director of Rutgers' Center for Women and Work.
The study, focusing mostly on women in private practice, said 41 percent of the respondents felt an unsupportive work environment was the top reason for leaving a job. Examples of that atmosphere were:
• A "glass ceiling" or gender bias that prevents women from advancing to top positions. Some respondents said this was shown by male partners' camaraderie with male associates, who then were introduced to clients and were able to share in business origination.
• A "maternal wall" that stalls a woman's career trajectory when she becomes pregnant. Respondents cited smaller bonuses and negative comments from partners after returning from maternity leave. The study acknowledged that the attorneys' difficulties might have stemmed from their own performance problems. But the study's authors added that they could not determine whether the women's career setbacks stemmed from their motherhood.
• A generation gap in which senior women partners, who began their careers when women lawyers were rare and discrimination was blatant, are critical and provide little mentorship to younger women associates.
Poor promotion opportunity was the second main reason for leaving, cited by 40 percent. Thirty-four percent said they did not expect to make partner, another 34 percent said they did not know whether they would make partner and 32 percent predicted they would make partner. Also cited was uncertainty about the length of the partnership path.
The third main reason for leaving, cited by 33 percent, was better wages or benefits at the next job.
The study outlined steps a law firm can take to retain women lawyers, including:
• Offering custom work schedules such as a full-time schedule with the freedom to come and go, or work at home as needed; compressed work weeks in which the employee works longer hours but fewer days; and job sharing.
• Offering flexible work arrangements to all lawyers and staff, not just mothers or parents. Respondents said some firms offer flexible scheduling to mothers only, which the report said stigmatized its use.
• Ensuring that those using flexible-work arrangements have opportunities for advancement, to counteract any negative perception of such arrangements as a dead end.
• Making advancement policies transparent by publishing the criteria for partnership and intermediary positions to promote a sense of fairness and objectivity in the workplace.
• Making sure women are not socially isolated in the firm. Initiatives to bring women lawyers together address generational conflicts and provides formal and informal mentoring relationships, the study's authors said.
• Ensuring that women are not excluded from business-development opportunities. Some firms provide mentoring and seminars to teach women lawyers about networking and to provide introductions.
• Providing state-of-the-art remote access, including mobile phones capable of e-mail, laptop computers with wireless connectivity and remote access to the firm's computer network, as well as technology training, to enable attorneys to work offsite and remain available to clients.
Firms can reap economic advantages from creating an atmosphere friendly to women, says Boyer.
"Employers that follow best practices that provide effective work/life programs benefit from better recruiting, greater productivity, improved client service and reduced expenses associated with turnover," Boyer says.
The survey of 520 women lawyers was conducted during May and June 2008. Eighty-one percent of the respondents were in law firms, 10 percent in corporations, 6 percent in government and 3 percent in public interest agencies.