Thursday Thinkpiece: Webb & Loughlin on Shifting Attitudes in the Next Generation of Male Lawyers

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Shifting Attitudes in the Next Generation of Male Lawyers: Will the Kids be as Important as the Courtroom?

Shannon R. Webb, Professor at Lawrence Kinlin School of Business, Fanshawe College
Catherine Loughlin, Associate Dean Research and Knowledge Mobilization at the Sobey School of Business, Saint Mary’s University

First published in the Western Journal of Legal Studies, (2016) 6:3 online: UWO J Leg Stud 4 <>.

Excerpt: Introduction and sections II and V | Footnotes omitted. They can be found in the original via the link above


Despite the recent increases in graduation rates of women in traditionally male-dominated careers, women remain underrepresented in leadership positions in legal practice. Although college-educated mothers have greater participation in the labour market as compared to lesser-educated mothers, women continue to opt out of careers and the accompanying leadership opportunities. The absence of women from these positions is important because a lack of diversity, when it comes to leadership, may negatively impact the sustainability of the legal workplace.

The opt-out rates of business school graduates mirror these general trends, such that female business school graduates decide to opt out of the workplace in greater numbers than male graduates. The graduating classes from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business were studied from 1990 to 2006. Although the employment rates of men and women were similar post-graduation (92 to 94 per cent and 89 per cent, respectively), the employment rates diverged over time. Only 62 per cent of women were employed full-time after ten or more years beyond graduation. Further, only 50 per cent of women with one or more children were employed full-time. These figures contrast with the employment rates of men, where 98 to 99 per cent of men were employed full-time post-graduation. There were also differences reported in the number of hours worked by women and men with children. Women with children worked 24 per cent fewer hours than the average man. Men with children, however, worked only 3.3 per cent fewer hours than those without children.

Women are 63 per cent more likely to completely exit the field of law as compared with men. A longitudinal study found that women in the legal field do not receive the same level of professional recognition as men. Despite the fact that women perform at a high level in terms of high client billings and other important aspects of legal practice, they were not receiving rewards similar to those offered to similarly achieving men in terms of partnership in a firm. Further, women who remain in the legal profession in Canada are subject to a substantial income gap. More than 60 per cent of the income gap was attributed to financial differences related to employment characteristics, such as hours of work and specialization, rather than areas such as position or type of firm/organization. This income gap increases as women progress upwards along the career ladder.

In response to the opt-out rate of Canadian female lawyers, studies have identified plausible contributing factors that are linked to the early turnover of women in working environments that are not conducive to the maintenance of families and related responsibilities. For example, legal workplaces are often not flexible enough when it comes to scheduling and job demands. These systematic problems may result in a higher level of job dissatisfaction amongst women and contribute to the high turnover rate of female lawyers.

Generally, research in this field has not considered the issue of retention of lawyers by examining law students. The aim of this study is to begin addressing the gap in the literature by studying female lawyers, beginning at the level of law students, in order to determine if the opt-out rates may be traced to individuals’ role salience prior to entering the legal labour market. The goal of this paper is to investigate the extent to which men and women are committed to various life roles—such as family or work—to differing degrees in the early stages of their careers. This study aims to join in the conversation at a time when research has begun to address the unique nature of women’s careers and to study more non-traditional career paths. If there is a disparity in the commitment to life roles between men and women at the student level, this knowledge will allow for early intervention and retention strategies to be implemented.


This paper will argue that role commitment will differ between male and female law students. It is expected that those who are more committed to certain roles will be inclined to invest more energy and time into these roles. These differences may help to explain the disparity in the opt-out rates between female and male lawyers. Women who perceive that they have a choice about whether or not they can opt out may choose to exercise it and ultimately opt out of the legal workforce. In contrast, men may perceive themselves to have fewer options and therefore stay in the legal workforce.

Hypothesis 1: Male law students will report more commitment to their occupational role than female law students.

Research has shown that men view occupation as being more important than marriage, whereas women view marriage as more important than occupation. Therefore, it is possible that law students may follow this trend, prioritizing their roles differently by gender. In recent studies, both Lind and Daubman suggest that females under-evaluate their educational accomplishments. In those studies, for instance, the female law students rated themselves as lower in every category of skill related to practicing law when compared to male law students. This paper proposes that if women feel that they are less competent in these skills, it is probable that they will be less committed to their legal careers. In related research, women were found to have lower pre-career expectations of success than men, which may also be linked to less career commitment.

Research indicates that women anticipate that the balancing of work and family lives will be difficult. For instance, Fetterolf’s study found that highly successful undergraduate female students expected to earn a lower salary and participate in more domestic work than their husbands. Further, female students anticipated that employment would negatively impact the relationship with their children. Stone and McKee found that female students grappled with the combination of future careers and family, and regarded motherhood as a “fallback position.” Women’s perceptions of the impact of occupation on their home lives may encourage them to be less committed to their careers at an early stage. Correll’s study additionally found that male job applicants are often financially rewarded for their parenting role from their employment. Therefore, men may be more committed to their careers given the financial incentive that attaches to their fatherhood role.

Hypothesis 2: Female law students will report stronger parental role commitment than male law students.

It remains well established that females devote more time to child care than men. For instance, in 2010, Canadian women reported spending 50.1 hours of child care per week in comparison to 24.4 hours reported by Canadian men.26 DiRenzo recently found that employees in higher positions are more likely to experience work–life conflict. The current study proposes that lawyers are frequently in these roles, and therefore, female lawyers are particularly susceptible to experience work–life conflict.

A recent survey of a Princeton class revealed that 33 per cent of men anticipated work–life conflict, whereas 62 per cent of females anticipated the same conflict. Moreover, 46 per cent of the male students anticipated their female partners to alter their career paths to accommodate children. Only 5 percent of women anticipated their partners would opt out. Cinamon (2010) found that female students were more likely to be family-oriented than male students. This was supported by Stone and McKee, who reported that male students expected their female partners to sacrifice their career for child care.

When examining the future, men’s “provider” selves were more positively correlated with both their career and family identities; however, women’s “caregiver” selves were more positively correlated with both career and family identities. Brown and Diekman also found that when looking at the distant future, a significant negative correlation emerged for women only, suggesting that women anticipated some trade-off between their family and careers. This research suggests that, despite the findings that men are spending more time devoted to child care, women remain the primary partner responsible for child care. Further, male students may be hesitant about strongly committing to their family given that their careers are more heavily penalized for committing to family than females, and are subject to mistreatment and harassment. Further, their family and work identities may be intertwined, given that men may view their family identity as a product of their role as financial providers. These findings were consistent with the recent study of Greenhaus, which found that the demands of men’s jobs—and the strength of both their work and family identities—were not correlated with their work hours.

Studies that examine parenting issues suggest that men may also be less committed to their child care duties than women. Blain found that fathers regarded themselves as less capable than mothers when it came to parenting. The current study proposes that if men feel as though they are less capable in terms of parenting, then they are more likely to divert their energy away from parenting. Research has shown that females can engage in “maternal gatekeeping” functions, which diminish a father’s likelihood of engaging in equal parental care.

Hypothesis 3: Female law students will report higher marital role commitment than male law students.

When faced with the choice of getting married or having a career, 38 per cent of females and 18 per cent of males choose marriage as a priority. It is also noteworthy that the importance of marriage has increased for women. Young women between the ages of 18 and 31 reported a higher “drive to marry” than men. Men are fiscally rewarded for being married and experience a “marriage premium,” meaning that they earn more than their single colleagues. The current study proposes that these factors predict that male law students may be less committed to marriage than female law students.

Hypothesis 4: Male law students will report higher self-efficacy with respect to managing work–life conflict.

In dual earning families, mothers report doing 30 per cent more housework than fathers. Blain found that men perceived homework as a “women’s task” and, unless they were asked to help, chores would default to women.

Women remain predominantly responsible for child care. Given that women are more likely to be performing additional home and child care duties, they are less certain in their ability to meet the demands of their work lives. Moreover, Cinamon (2006) studied university students and found that female students demonstrated lower self-efficacy than male students regarding work interfering with family and family interfering with work.


Occupational Role: Male Law Students are Slightly More Committed than Female Law Students

Given that women opt out of the legal profession at a greater rate than men, men may be more committed to their occupational role, whereas women may be more committed to their marriage and family roles. This study begins to decipher whether these commitments are pre-existing differences between male and female lawyers, or whether they emerge later in the legal career.

The results revealed that men were—although only marginally—more committed to their occupations than women. Therefore, hypothesis one is accepted: male law students report more commitment to their occupational role than female law students. However, it is noteworthy that the differences are only marginal. These results imply that, at the student level, female students are slightly less committed to their career. The differences may be attributed to the awareness of non-flexible work conditions and family friendly policies that may dissuade female students from matching the role commitment reported by male students.

Parental Roles: Male and Female Law Students Equally Committed

In contrast, hypothesis two was not supported: female law students did not report stronger parental role commitment than male law students. The results revealed that men and women were equally committed to their parental roles. Although the current literature consistently finds that women commit to parental responsibilities more than men, it is possible that men are becoming more committed to their future parenting roles. Research demonstrates that men spend more time on child care than they had previously—time spent addressing child care has tripled (from 2.65 to 6.5 hours per day) between 1965 and 2000, with most of the increase occurring after 1985. Further, this finding is consistent with the general trend that men now demand more work–life balance than they had in the past. For instance in a sample of men and women with children twelve years old and younger, between 1998 and 2010, men have increased the amount of time spent doing unpaid work by 15 minutes per day and decreased the amount of time working by 14 minutes. However, the disparity of time addressing daily child care needs persists as women with children spend more than 6.5 hours per day performing child care duties, whereas men spend slightly more than three hours per week on the same tasks.

Provided that children are regarded as a component in work–life balance, it may be that men are less willing to subjugate their families to their careers than in the past. A recent Canadian study supports the trend that women and men may not be dramatically different in their commitment to caregiving roles. The study revealed that, compared to men, more women were found to be the primary caregiver of a family member (which was not restricted to children). The results, however, revealed that women reported an average of four hours of caregiving a week and men reported three hours of caregiving. Although these results report near-equivalent caregiving duties, women were more likely to spend more than 20 hours per week providing caregiving for others.

Another factor that may lead to surprising results in this sample was the fact that Canadian men and women enjoy richer maternity and parental benefits compared to their counterparts in the United States, where many of the existing studies have been performed. Parents in Canada have the combined right to one year of leave from work to spend with their offspring. In fact, the average mother took 44 weeks of statutorily entitled leave in Canada. Further, 13 per cent of men engaged in some parental leave.

Marital Role: Male and Female Law Students Equally Committed

Men and women in this study were equally committed to their marriage roles and, therefore, hypothesis three is also rejected. This finding is supported by a recent study by Patten and Parker (2012) that interviewed over one thousand participants and found that men and women rated having a successful marriage as a greater concern than career success. However, in Patten and Parker’s (2012) study the men did not rank family as highly as their female counterparts. Interestingly, it was found that the law students in their upper years were less committed to their marital role. These results appear to be counterintuitive to the general public, since it would be anticipated that upper-year students are older and therefore more likely to marry. However, an increased familiarity with the practice of law may account for this trend: as students progress in their law school career, they may become more aware of the sacrifices that will be required in order to succeed in a legal career. Further, many upper-year students may have prior work experience in a legal setting, providing them with direct exposure to the challenging workplace environment.

Self-Efficacy to Manage Work–Life Conflict: Equal in Male and Female Law Students

Contrary to hypothesis four, male and female law students were also equal in their perceived abilities to manage future work–life conflict. This is an interesting shift from previous research, which has found that females report lower self-efficacy in this area. These results may reveal a shift in the perception of female law students. If so, this shift would imply potential positive future careers for these women, given that self-efficacy is a powerful influence on related successes and role-related stress.

This finding may be representative of law students as a product of dual income families. In prior decades, there were not as many working mothers. However, in the sample for this study, the average age was 26 years, and many participants grew up with both parents working outside the home. The female law students may also approach their families differently by adopting strategies that allow them to prepare for the demanding life involving both a professional career and children. For instance, women now have fewer children than in the past. In 1971, the generational replacement rate in Canada was 2.1 children per woman. This rate has consistently fallen over time. In 2009, the replacement rate was 1.7 children born per woman in Canada. It is possible that the drop in the birth rate is partially due to women recognizing that more children result in an increased dropout rate.

Further, men who are the product of a dual income childhood are more likely to participate in housework as an adult. This is further supported by the results of a survey that found that younger men rated “having time to spend time with my family” was very important to them, whereas older workers were focused on “doing work which challenges me to use my skills and abilities.” These findings support men and women having similar results in perceived self-efficacy to manage work–life conflict.

This study is unique in that it attempts to understand trend of lawyers opting out of their legal careers prior to entering the profession. In fact, contrary to initial expectations, men and women were equally committed to their work and family roles. Therefore, these results suggest that the decision to opt out appears to be determined later in the career trajectory, as opposed to being due to differing values prior to entering the profession. Herr and Wolfram’s research supports this assertion, given that work environments were found to contribute to opt-out decisions amongst women. Simon found that men’s and women’s feelings about combining work and family differed. Whereas women felt that employment prevented them from fulfilling nurturing roles, men felt that employment was essential to fulfilling their family roles. Further, combining these multiple roles resulted in negative feelings among women with respect to their adequacy as a parent and spouse. The opposite relationship was found for men, who reported positive self-evaluations and feelings of self-worth when combining roles.

Mainero and Sullivan describe women as adopting a “kaleidoscope model” towards their careers, since they make career decisions based on a number of interconnected issues. Under this model, women rotate their focus on different areas of their lives to arrange and interpret their roles in new ways. While rotating their focus, the women recognized that each career-related decision might have long-lasting effects on their family members. This research supports the suggestion that female lawyers opt out in response to pressure that occurs at the workplace level. Female law students may not yet be exposed to the multiple relevant expectations when confronting these conflicting goals.

Another factor that may explain the differences between men and women’s opt-out rates is the fact that women may expect more opportunities to use flexible and family-friendly policies. In this context, flexibility refers to the parameters of a workplace, such as leaving for family caregiving or working non-standard times. Family-friendly policies are more formal workplace measures such as paid maternity and parental leave. Research demonstrates that flexibility and family-friendly policies reduce absenteeism and turnover in the workplace. In the case of female lawyers, workplaces are less likely to support these policies for a variety of reasons. First, flexibility is hampered by key job duties, such as court attendance and client meetings, which are virtually impossible to work around. Further, it is possible that the culture in law firms dissuades women from using these policies. However Blair-Loy and Wharton found that women with children were, not surprisingly, more likely than males to use these work-and-family-friendly policies.

It is also possible that once a woman is established in her career, and experiences the demands on family-associated resources, she may change her priorities. Although women may be equally committed to their careers, inner conflicts may result in significant drop-out rates. Traditional attitudes regarding marital obligations and deference to a partner’s career may override a woman’s own career-oriented goals. Further, when faced with dual careers, women may reduce their hours worked to accommodate their husbands’ careers. As a result, they may no longer be able to attain their goals of being an ideal worker due to conflicting expectations to be both the ideal homemaker and ideal employee. These women may opt out of their careers when faced with the inability to meet these conflicting expectations. Although a partner’s long work hours increase a woman’s likelihood of opting out of her career, the same is not true for males. Furthermore, the pattern of opting out was found to be more prominent among professionals, where trends of overworking and intensive parenting are common.

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