Does the idea of “work-life” balance in the legal profession seem like a laughable impossibility? I know the feeling, especially as a woman. I, unfortunately, was never able to find that balance and eventually transitioned to a “legal adjacent” career. In a profession where 70-hour workweeks come standard, and late nights and weekends are expected, having both a family and making partner – and retaining some shred of sanity – are squarely at odds with each other. Improving gender parity in leadership positions has long been a stated goal for many firms. Yet firms have struggled to follow through with the practical changes that would make day-to-day firm life more inclusive for women.
The pandemic underscored the impossible trade-offs women face. Since women are more likely to assume the role of primary caregiver, the pandemic pushed many into no-win positions, resulting in a slew of resignations. But by disrupting the status quo, the pandemic may also be creating new opportunities– and both women and firms stand to benefit.
Firms continue to struggle with talent retention and gender parity at leadership levels.
Last year, the legal industry had 12,000 job listings, a record high according to the 2021 State of the Legal Industry Report from Leopard Solutions. There simply are not enough good candidates to fill those openings.
The time to make Partner has also increased, and this increase is now prompting some lawyers to move laterally to other firms. Here’s why: in the last decade, an entry-level hire will take about eight-and-a-half years longer to make Partner than if they made a lateral move. In other words, there’s more value in leaving for a new firm than remaining as a “lifer” at one’s original firm.
While women continue to account for just over half of all law school graduates, representation of women at the equity partner level has been stagnant for the last decade. In 2021, just 23% of equity partners were women, according to the ABA.
4 Changes Firms Can Make to Improve Recruitment & Retention
Despite the candidate-driven market, law firms can put several strategic moves into action. These tactics may help reduce employee churn, plus further develop and promote female talent.
Understand female employee leverage. Before the pandemic, the market scales tended to tip in favor of law firms. The situation has changed over the past year, and today’s strong candidate market is an advantage for employees, particularly women. With many of us still working remotely, there’s more blurring of the workday and personal time. If work/life balance is not shown to be a reality at a firm, women won’t hesitate to look elsewhere. Firms should consider investing in hiring Workflow Integration Managers that can help enforce a more balanced and even distribution of work within the various practice groups.
Offer creative work opportunities. Because there’s such a small pool of qualified top candidates, firms need to be more creative with their offers, both for current employees and prospective hires. Many firms are on “lock-step” compensation, where there’s a base salary determined by how many years a candidate has been out of law school. The firms with the most success and least turnover are the ones offering creative work environments on top of that compensation, such as hybrid workspaces, enhanced partnership tracks, and more female leadership opportunities. Firms that show their female associates paths for growth and involvement within their firm –– and give billable hour credit for this type of commitment –– will also yield better retention.
Offer flexible arrangements while keeping full-time benefits. We recommend firms where the billable hours aren’t outrageous or untenable. The normal requirement is 1900-2000 hours, but due to the volume of work, many women go way over their hours. When firms allow a fair reduced-hour arrangement—such as working 85% of the required hours and receiving 85% of the lock-step comp—you’ll find more balance and enthusiasm from prospective hires and current employees. True ups can be offered if the associate goes over 85% of those hours and monitoring needs to be in place by HR.
Provide mental health resources. Everyone needs a moment to decompress, whether that’s time spent working out, reading, or just unwinding with one’s favorite reality TV show. Disproportionate workloads, coupled with “second shift” work as a primary caregiver, mean women rarely have a moment for this, increasing burnout rates. The pandemic prompted companies in all industries, including the law firms, to offer increased mental health resources and personal well-being holidays. Now, it’s up to firm leadership to set an example that it’s okay to use these benefits–– and there’s no fear that doing so will harm advancement. Leadership must also set a precedent that vacation time can (and should) be used to recharge after a heavy deal month.
There’s a consistent thread among all these strategies: Communication will always be vital in hiring and retaining top talent. Rather than make assumptions, firms need to ask questions about what their female lawyers need. Then, it’s a matter of truly listening to the answers, and acting upon them. Actions speak the loudest, so put a plan in place that shows more than just lip service. The firms that do this will put themselves—and their people—in a strong position for better work-life balance and long-term success.