ABA president Hilarie Bass ABA president Hilarie Bass. Photo by David Handschuh

The American Bar Association’s Long-Term Careers for Women in Law initiative held its kickoff event at Harvard Law School on Wednesday where heads of law firms and legal departments attempted to disentangle the riddle as to why seasoned female lawyers are leaving the law.

“We’ve known for years that women were leaving the profession in high numbers,” said American Bar Association president Hilarie Bass, who helped develop the two-day national summit that included panel discussions with general counsel and law firm leaders, such as Buckley Sandler partner Christina Tchen, a former chief of staff to First Lady Michelle Obama, and Morgan, Lewis & Bockius chair Jami Wintz McKeon.

For nearly a quarter-century, women and men have been entering the legal field at the same rate; however, as the years go on, the number of women in the profession begins to dwindle. According to the ABA, women over 40 make up only 40 percent of lawyers at law firms, while women over 50 make up only 27 percent.

Law firms have always understood that there would be attrition around the childbearing years of a woman’s career, but Bass said that recent studies show that women are actually leaving firms in their 40s and 50s.

“You’ve already had your children, you’ve come back from maternity leave, and at that point, you have all this experience and expertise, why would you leave then?” said Bass, who also serves as co-president of Greenberg Traurig from Miami.

Figuring out an answer to that question is the current focus of the ABA’s Women in Law program. The initiative will conduct research throughout the year with the hope being that by the end of next summer, it will develop specific recommendations to combat the problem and present them to the ABA House of Delegates in August 2018.

“We’re not suggesting everybody needs to work till 65 or 70 in law,” Bass quipped. “But if women are leaving because they’re just tired of having fought for all these years and still not being treated how they perceive to be fairly and equally with men, that’s a problem we need to address.”

Guy Halgren, another summit panelist who serves as chairman of the executive committee at Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton, said that it is critical to his firm’s success to promote the long-term success of women.

“If we look at our most profitable, productive partners, they are in the age 50-to-65 range, and especially over the age of 60,” said Halgren, who was one of the few male faces in attendance at Harvard. “So if I’m going to keep those people—men and women—we need to make sure they feel engaged in a satisfying career and so I want to get ideas on how to do that better.”