Women Lawyers: At the Edge of Change

The on-going debate on whether women lawyers can hold demanding jobs, especially at senior levels while also raising children, has exploded with this month’s article in The Atlantic magazine, Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”. 

This well-written, lengthy article by a lawyer and professor at Princeton who gave up her dream job working with Hilary Clinton at the State Department in Washington, DC to return to Boston to be more present with her teenage sons, has sparked debates from the New York Times to the Globe and Mail. The Atlantic reports the article has broken readership records to their website.

The author argues that even when a woman has a supportive spouse, excellent childcare, healthy children, a strong commitment to clients and her job – in short, all the right support mechanisms – it is often still not possible to have both a full-time career and be a decent parent. While much of the author’s pressure came from working in a different city than her family – an impossible situation for anyone whether they are male or female – she still makes many valid arguments in favour of workplace change.

Her conclusion is that woman can adapt as much as possible to the demands of their career and their family but ultimately until law firms change, women – and increasingly men – will chose to leave for other more flexible options.

My own observation is that women lawyers often leave without giving their firm an opportunity to even consider more flexible changes. They leave because they have seen other women ask for minor changes and been turned down. They also believe that even if the firm does grant them some form of more flexible arrangement (for example working from home one day a week) that others in the office will resent their arrangement or feel that the woman is now not as committed to her clients or career as those putting in the maximum face-time. The women don’t want to practice in an environment where they feel their commitment or professionalism will be questioned or negatively criticized.

All workplaces – especially law firms – are going to look very different ten years from now. The pressures are not coming just from exhausted parents but equally from changing economic conditions and a generation more comfortable with technology. The generation that grew up connecting over Facebook has little patience for face-time with colleagues when clients rarely appear in person but connect electronically with their lawyer.

Housing prices in cities like Vancouver and Toronto are forcing young lawyers to look for ways to work remotely so they can find good housing and cut down on long commutes.

Younger lawyers are questioning why the workplace is still based on assumptions which worked in the 1860s and 1960s but do not work in the 21st century. However, up until now, law firms have felt very little economic pain as a result of women leaving. Even though there is a cost to investing in a young professional who then takes her talent elsewhere, larger firms are used to a constant in-take of associates who are let go when their billing rates become too expensive or the need for new partners becomes increasingly restricted. An up-or-out model accepts associate turnover as the cost of doing business.

Smaller firms feel a greater impact when they lose a younger lawyer as they do not have the same turnover model as the larger firms and the investment costs are shared amongst a smaller group of partners.

Workplaces will change not when women leave the profession in ever increasing numbers, but when law firms start to feel sufficient financial pressure to make the changes that many women are seeking.

When I look back over the past 30 years since I entered the profession, I am often astounded at the changes in the profession. The prominence of women on the bench, at the partnership table and in boardrooms is light years better than it was in the 1980s. However, we are entering a new phase of work where the changes coming to every profession and business will make past changes seem like tinkering around the edges.

Change will be driven more by economic forces brought not just from women leaving law firms but from clients, younger male lawyers, increasing global competition, rising costs in both housing and commercial space, technology– and a host of other societal and business factors that we cannot even imagine. After all, had someone told me thirty years ago that I could access all my client files as well as most of the world’s information in a device that fit into the palm of my hand, I would have said “In your Star Trek dreams”.

Change is coming. Not fast enough for many departing women lawyers but sooner than many law firms appreciate. These changes will benefit everyone – lawyers, their families, staff and clients. Our challenge is to embrace change before the financial impact is too high. Listening to our departing female colleagues and experimenting with at least some of the workplace changes they are suggesting – is a good place to start.


  1. Interesting article.

    It would serve firms well to encourage family friendly concepts of practice. After all this is 2012. Women are smart, adaptable, they ARE working, and they aren’t going away. They should be encouraged to particpate in the legal profession.

    Not only that, as clients many women are looking for providers who are like minded. That “old boys network” just isn’t what they want when they seek legal advice and spend their hard earned money.

  2. Nicole Garton-Jones

    Wonderful, insightful article Linda on the increasing challenges facing our profession. I’m proud to have you as a mentor and friend.

  3. However, competition and the all mighty profits per partner is all that actually matters (in private practice anyways). Child rearing is just wishy washy nonsense that is properly someone else’s work (nanny’s maybe? Who cares?), that ought not interfere with the high calling of serving one’s clients to the best of one’s abilities to the exclusion of all else.

    Am I right or what?

    Some days I’m glad I’m out of the ranks of practicing lawyers. The further I get away from it, the less I miss it. And yes, for the record, I am a man.