Why Lawyers Leave Law Firms and What Firms Can Do About It

April 15, 2016

Every practicing lawyer knows at least one: a brilliant, hard-working, former law firm associate. Maybe she left to spend more time with family, or maybe she wanted to try a smaller “lifestyle” firm to reduce her hours, or maybe the firm culture made it impossible to stay. Whatever the reason, her academic and professional credentials are excellent, and the firm lost her talent. What could the firm have done differently to keep her from leaving?

Associate retention is a top priority for many law firms, and firms have taken numerous steps and have implemented programs in an effort to improve retention. Law firms have offered reduced-hour schedules and other alternative work arrangements, built mentorship programs, started steering committees and hired consultants to try and find answers, but associates continue to leave law firms as much as ever.

What can traditional law firms do to retain attorneys? What policies or changes would convince attorneys to stick with law firms? To begin answering these questions, we surveyed nearly 400 (58 men, 321 women) attorneys who have left at least one legal employer. We were interested in why they left their employers and what, if anything, their employers could have done to retain them. We also wondered whether people left the law altogether, so we asked about what kind of work they are doing now.

The results suggest that while many lawyers believe that the traditional law firm model may be broken, it is not without hope. Those surveyed overwhelmingly believe that employers can make shifts and adjustments that would be positive for lawyers. Here are highlights of what we learned.

The Time Factor and the Part-Time Policy Dilemma

More than any other reason, respondents left their employers because of intense time demands. Thirty-four percent said that the primary reason they left was related to the time demands of the job. One respondent observed, “I found it very difficult to meet billable hour requirements and spend quality time with my family. The stress of trying to ‘balance’ those was too difficult—particularly when I felt the need to work even without looming deadlines.” Several attorneys disliked being “on call 24/7.” One respondent summarized,

“Any job that requires that many hours could never have been a life-long commitment for me. It’s very clear to me now, but wasn’t then. I was missing out on a lot of life to make my billable hours requirement. To retain me, the firm would have had to totally rethink its business model and do away with a culture of billable hours bravado, in which people took a sick sense of pride in the incredible amount of time (2400+ hours/year) they devoted to the job and sacrificed from their own lives.”

Another respondent stated, “The primary thing would have been to try to eliminate the expectation that lawyers should be working multiple all nighters a year.”

To address the time pressures, many employers have implemented reduced-hour policies, but with mixed success. Over a third (33.44%) of respondents who worked in organizations that offered part-time policies did not even attempt to work part-time, because they did not believe the program would work. They cited concerns that their hours would rise above the agreed upon threshold, that they would lose opportunities, and that too much stigma is associated with going part-time.

Those who did try working part-time reported that the programs often failed to remedy the excessive time demands problem. More than half the respondents who tried working part-time reported that their hours exceeded the agreed-upon threshold. One respondent summarized the problem, “Too little pay for the same stress and workload.” Of the respondents that tried part-time schedules, however, 59.4% said they were more content, defined as “experienced more happiness and less stress,” while working on a reduced-hour schedule than when they worked full-time.

One of the most robust survey findings was that part-time attorneys continue to feel stigmatized: nearly 74% of people who tried working part-time said they felt stigmatized as a result. This finding is consistent with decades of research demonstrating that people who use flexibility programs suffer career setbacks. As Leigh Abramson recently reported in The Atlantic: Although many firms have tried implementing part-time schedules, they often flounder because of flexibility stigma and schedule creep.

As one respondent commented, “Reduced hours are nice in theory, but they’ll never work without some kind of system or program to ensure that both the attorney and the firm honor the commitment… And there’s so much stigma that most attorneys will never say anything about how their workload is too high.”

Our findings are consistent with other research, which shows that firms need to do more than merely reduce hours requirements. As the UC Hastings WorkLife Law Center has written, “Firms need a Balanced Hours Coordinator, because even the most expertly drafted, well-intentioned balanced hours policy cannot implement itself.” Firms interested in retaining top talent may consider creating systems to ensure that reduced-hour policies work as planned for both attorneys and the firms. Indeed, 36.6% of those who answered said they probably or definitely would have stayed had their firms had programs to monitor the reduced-hour programs.

Firms and their leaders also should address the stigma that comes with working a balanced-hour schedule. Without solving the stigma problem, attorneys who would otherwise stay on with a reduced-hour schedule may be unwilling to try such programs (as our results indicate), and those who do try them may hesitate to speak up about hours-creep or other failings in the program. As other research has found, “Women who managed to get a part-time arrangement or some ‘deal’ around taking time off were afraid to complain, thinking this would lead to the firm taking a second look at their arrangement. Women were afraid to rock the boat in what they already perceived as treacherous waters.”

The survey responses also suggest that project-based work might be a more effective way to address time demands than part-time programs. About 44% of respondents said they probably or definitely would have stayed had they been permitted to work on projects on an hourly basis. Under such a program, they would be paid only for the hours they worked, but would not have a minimum billable requirement. Those who probably or definitely would have stayed with a freelance program was 13% higher than those who would have stayed with part-time policies. This survey sample may have been biased toward favoring project-based work, as we obtained respondents in part through a freelance law company’s social networks and mailing lists. Nevertheless, many attorneys believe that project-based work may be the answer to truly flexible legal career, as evidenced by the thousands of applications to “accordion law companies” like Montage Legal Group.

Taking the Toxic Out of Law Firm Culture 

How important is the “culture” of a law firm? This survey suggests that a company’s culture can make or break a firm’s ability to retain associates. After time demands, toxic culture was the most common reason people cited for leaving their law jobs. Nearly 19% cited it as the “primary reason” they left. Men (20.83%) cited toxic culture as the primary reason they left more often than women (18.27%) did. For many attorneys, the stress and time demands of the job weren’t the primary problem; more respect, collegiality and kindness may be the keys for them. Can traditional law firms make that happen? Possibly, but every firm is different, and culture shifts will likely need to start with strong firm leaders committed to positive change.

The survey did not define the term “toxic work culture,” and further research into legal culture is warranted, but the respondents’ extensive comments shed light on the problems with the culture at some firms. Prominent themes include lack of collegiality, an absence of transparency, and bias.

Several respondents observed problems with partners hoarding work and credit. For example,

  • “wealthy partners were hoarding clients”
  • “There was no point given for trying or being a team player, only for dollars brought in the door.”
  • “more mentorship and team effort” might have helped;
  • the firm needed “less blame & throwing people under the bus.”

Only 1.43% of respondents selected bias as the primary reason they left their firms, but their comments are instructive about gender bias and bias against mothers, such as:

  • “Before I had children, I was treated very well… When my first child was born, I was treated poorly even though my billable hours remained high and my work quality remained excellent. I developed a keen awareness of how the firm viewed mothers and it was not positive.”
  • “I worked at a national, top-ranked law firm. Once I became pregnant, I was told to leave. I was able to keep my maternity leave after signing an NDA. This happened to another associate in the class ahead of me.”
  • “In the group I was in, women were the workhorses of the group, expected to stay late and make sure details were taken care of, while men left for happy hour. There was definitely a boys’ club mentality.”
  • “Gender bias remains pervasive, long-standing and entrenched, as does racial bias.”

Selena Rezvani, an advisor to corporate women’s networks, also confirms our findings by noting that she is “hard pressed to name an industry that simultaneously has more progressive policies and yet more of an old-school culture than the large law firm environment does.”

Several respondents also commented on lack of fairness, poor communication, and lack of transparency, possibly accounting for what respondents viewed as “toxic” culture:

  • “Transparency, elimination of nepotism, and perhaps not locking us all in the office would have been a nice touch.”
  • “It was clear that wealthy partners were hoarding clients and were unwilling to consider having talented associates have relationships that allowed them to build books of business at the firm. In short, the firm thought even the best of us were expendable, fungible products like cogs to be overused, burned out and replaced with cheaper models.”
  • “More trust” [would have helped]
  • More transparency about expectations, more constructive criticism about room to improve, more training, better supervision, better management of cases by partners.

Respect, transparency, and a fair playing field are important in any organization. The bottom line is that law firms can retain some associates by changing the culture; changes in business models and billing requirements may not be necessary for those attorneys. However, it would be worth further researching the links between the billable hour model and culture.

More Money and Promotions are Secondary to Time and Culture

Interestingly, while many law firms are committed to increasing the number of women partners and raising women’s salaries to retain women, very few respondents reported that additional money or a change in title or status would have convinced them to remain with their employers. Only 16.5% said they probably or definitely would have stayed if they’d been paid more, while more than twice that (38%) said they still would have left. As compared with other changes, such as project-based programs (44% likely would have stayed), higher compensation would make a smaller difference.

A promotion to partner, without more, would not have retained many respondents either: only 16.2% said they would have stayed had they made partner, as compared to 42% who still would have left.

Of course, promoting women to partner and compensating women fairly for their work are priorities for most law firms. Our survey results indicate, however, that firms must first resolve issues involving intense time demands and toxic culture, because those issues are viewed so negatively, that no amount of money or prestige can compensate for them. Fix toxic culture and create real alternative schedules (at least temporarily), and firms will retain more associates, which will logically increase the number of women partners.

Attorneys are Not Opting Out to Care for Their Children Full-Time, and Most Do Not Leave the Law Entirely

Nearly three-quarters (73%) of the survey’s respondents continued to work in the legal profession in some way. Only 17.3% became full-time stay-at-home parents, yet another indication that the story that women cheerfully opt out of work is a myth. Slightly less than 10% work in non-legal jobs.

While women lawyers may not leave law to become full-time stay-at-home mothers, the press has been buzzing with reports of New Law practice models, ranging from Accordion Law companies to virtual law firms to secondment firms, which provide lawyers with a platform to do legal work from home. Indeed, reports suggest that attorneys are defecting to the new alternatives at extremely high rates. In the 2014 Forbes.com article, “How Two Stay-at-Home Moms are Changing the Legal Industry,” many of those who work as freelance attorneys identify themselves as stay-at-home mothers, even though many of them are working close to full-time hours. These new models allow parents to care for their children and continue to do legal work remotely and on alternative schedules.

Conclusions

Viewing the survey results as a whole presents a surprising conclusion—the majority of respondents report that they would have stayed with their legal jobs if there had been a different attitude, or if their firms had presented a reduced or alternative schedule absent an attached negative stigma.

Let’s break that down—more than anything else, associates want to feel valued, in terms of consideration for their schedules, making sure they are given the resources they need to succeed at their firms, and that their firms appreciate and respect their good work. Stigma and lack of respect are the biggest problems with reduced-hour schedules, and can be either the easiest or most difficult to resolve. Law firm leadership that resolve to retain associates can make these changes from the top down, or they can continue to lose top talent to virtual firms, secondment firms, accordion companies, and other alternative practice models that have entered the legal marketplace. Attorneys increasingly have options to practice law in a way that fits into their lives, whether in a traditional firm or in an alternative practice model.

Pinpointing problems is only the first step to finding solutions. Specific plans and policies will vary from firm to firm, and even among attorneys within a single firm. Shifting away from rewarding high hours and promoting positive change to a firm’s culture are the places to start.

 BY KATE MAYER MANGAN, ERIN GIGLIA, LAURIE ROWEN

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