Toughen-Up Buttercup: Flight of Women Lawyers From Private Practice

In the article, “Toughen Up, Buttercup” versus #TimesUp: Initial Findings of the ABA Women in Criminal Justice Task Force, Professor Maryam Ahranjani writes about the flight of women lawyers. In her article, Professor Ahranjani cites a Canadian study by Dr. Madon. In the study, titled “The Retention of Women in the Private Practice of Criminal Law (2016)”, it is revealed that women are 141% more likely to leave private practice than women in other private practice areas.

The reasons given for the flight of women include:

  • caretaking commitments,
  • level of stress at work,
  • emphasis on marketing and originating business, and
  • number of billable hours.

(see Walking out the Door (referenced at page 11) )

But the reasons for leaving private practice don’t just end there. Professor Ahranjani cites that the demand for overwork that prevails contemporary corporate culture is also a problem (see Robin J. Ely & Irene Padavic, What’s Really Holding Women Back?,HARV.BUS.REV. (Mar.-Apr. 2020).

Additionally, the quality of work given to women lawyers is also a cause of departures. There continues to be a preference for white men, who monopolize access to prime work, to mentor and sponsor other men.

In addition to the statistical evidence, Professor Ahranjani identifies anecdotal experiences on discrimination based on gendered expectations of women in criminal law. These experiences include:

• Very often we [judges] see male attorneys treating female attorneys in a way that is disrespectful and unacceptable in the
court system and in society.

• Men try to intimidate you through intimations of incompetence
and sometimes blatant overtures of incivility.

• I have been called or seen other women called, ‘honey,’ ‘sweetie,’
‘eye candy,’ ‘cutie’.

• If women have to work twice as hard as men to be recognized as
competent, Black women have to work four times as hard.

• I am routinely called by my first name when male attorneys are
called ‘Mr. So-and-so’.

• I spent 27 years as a man in my office before transitioning almost
five years ago. The horrible things you hear that men say about
women actually happen.

• There’s a fine line between aggressive and bitch. I was called a
chihuahua by a judge once; management said to ‘let it go’.

• I get called ‘little lady,’ and people said, ‘people will vote for you
[for elected public defender] because you are hot.

• I was introduced by my supervisor to a judge as a ‘spicy little

• I have been told I don’t look or act feminine enough.

With women leaving the workforce at record numbers since the pandemic began, it is important for us to recognize and address the plight and flight of women lawyers in North America.

(Views are my own, and do not represent the views of any organization.)

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