American Bar Association Aims to Close Gender Gap at Law Firms

A pair of summits and batch of studies are designed to clarify why so few women lawyers have stayed in the profession by age 50, among other questions.

Experienced women lawyers are leaving the profession in disproportionate numbers, and the association representing them is trying to find out why.

Last month, the American Bar Association (ABA) launched an initiative, Achieving Long-Term Careers for Women in Law, to address some troubling trend lines. For instance, while men and women generally graduate from law schools in equal numbers, only about 25 percent of lawyers aged 50 are women. Moreover, while women account for 45 percent of law-firm associates, they make up less than 20 percent of equity partners.

Bias starts in year one.

To get a better grip on the reasons for these disparities, ABA president Hilarie Bass announced the initiative as one of the main emphases of her yearlong tenure. It includes a pair of national summit meetings bookending a set of research projects designed to identify “best practices to stem the steady loss over time of experienced women lawyers in private practice.”

“The gender gap has been on my mind since I first became a lawyer,” said Bass. “The specifics on women in their more senior years, 20 years out and more, is a relatively recent focus. It’s only recently that there have been some studies that have been done that reflect our anecdotal assumption that women are leaving six to 12 years out. And while that’s true, the departure of women continues even when they’re in their 40s and 50s, when one would assume they’ve overcome whatever issues that they might otherwise have had.”

The first summit connected to the initiative took place in early November at Harvard Law School. There, according to an ABA report on the event, filmmaker and lawyer Sharon Rowen identified three key reasons for the diminished number of women in legal jobs and leadership roles: work/life balance, unconscious bias, and the pay gap. “Bias starts in year one,” said Harvard professor Iris Bohnet at the conference.

The conference addressed some potential methods for closing the gender gap. For instance, some firms have adopted the Mansfield Rule (named after Arabella Mansfield, the first U.S. female lawyer), which states that at least 30 percent of candidates for leadership positions at firms be women or people of color. The research portion of the ABA initiative is designed to generate more ideas by better understanding the scope of the problem. Among the planned studies are surveys of lawyers from 20 to 40 years after law school, focus groups, and dedicated studies on women of color and women over 55 who’ve changed careers.

The findings from those studies are scheduled to be ready in time for a second national summit on the subject next summer. Bass is confident that the results of the initiative will have an impact. “Nobody wants to lose experienced people,” she said. “Our goal is to try to come up with some very specific recommendations of what law firms and other workplace environments can do better in this space.”

(Chris Ryan/OJO Images/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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