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[BALANCE] Why Are Gen Y And Gen X Women Leaving Law Firms in Droves?

Why are younger women jumping ship?  Call me a pessimist, but as I've mentioned in the past, I suspect it's because life in a law firm (and many other legal offices as well) offers no balance.  It's the law firm first, everything else last.

And, this article, entitled "We're Outta Here," from the California Lawyer supports my hypothesis.  (Hat tip:  Bag and Baggage).  This was such a great article that I'm going to highlight large parts of it prior to offering my commentary at the end of this post.

The article first considers why turnover is so high for young women at law firms and then suggests that it's likely related to a generational shift in values.

First, the high attrition rate is discussed and some eye opening statistics are provided:

The past few years have witnessed the highest levels of associate attrition ever documented, with an average annual attrition rate for both sexes of 19 percent, as recently reported by the NALP Foundation for Law Career Research and Education. Within five years of entering a firm, more than three-quarters of associates leave. Female associates were nearly twice as likely as males to depart to pursue a better work/life balance.

The article then addresses the ever increasing generational gap

There is a growing disconnect between the last two generations of women lawyers, a development that is most apparent in large firms. Female senior partners from the baby boom say they are frustrated that the younger women don't want to give the same amount of blood to their careers. And many of the younger female attorneys look at the few women at the top and label them drudges who sacrificed too much personal freedom for their jobs...

Another point of disconnect may be that the generations now making their way though law firms—the Gen Xers born in the mid-1960s and '70s and the Gen Yers born in the 1980s—have a different view of work than the women who came before them.       

"The employment contract has changed," says law professor Williams. "This generation may have seen their parents work their whole lives and get laid off. They think, 'I'm not interested in that.' They say, 'Partnership is like a pie-eating contest—and the prize is more pie.' "

Another issue discussed was that the younger generations seek a better work/life balance:

A different view of life has also emerged, creating a divide that has set off perhaps the most contentious battles between the generations: The older women sacrificed parts of their lives for work; the younger ones resent work interfering with their lives...

Some say that the younger generation of women is taking a closer look at the apparent success of their elders—and concluding that the sacrifice isn't worth it.       

The junior associate leaving her big firm observes: "I thought I could do it all. Why not? So many have done it before me. Then at a closer look I see, no, they haven't. They cut corners; they just weren't professional corners." 

Another woman, a fourth-year associate currently at a midsize firm in Southern California, notes: "Two of the three most senior women were never married, and they never had kids. They want to see women succeed, but they're not helpful about how to balance work and family, or how to do well and also have a life. They don't have experience in how to do that."

The article then explained that law firms are finally beginning to wake up and smell the coffee out of economic necessity:

In the past, firms expected attrition as part of their pyramid structures, but with attrition now at the highest levels ever, firms are starting to realize that losing associates is both expensive and bad for business.       

Meanwhile, the talent market is becoming increasingly competitive because the number of law school graduates is static while law firms' hiring needs are increasing. And now that about half of all law school graduates are female, firms that don't hire and retain women will likely find themselves short on talent.       

Accounting firms, which faced a similar problem in the early 1990s, could provide a case study for law firms on how to retain women. Back then, the accounting firms hired more than 50 percent women but found most left before becoming partners. So the accountants did the math and took action...

If law firms want to get the best and brightest young women to join them and stay, they will likely need to change radically and adopt different definitions of sacrifice and partnership...

At the end of the article was a really interesting series of charts that summarized generalizations that can be made about each generation:

Baby Boomers       

Born: 1946 to 1964       
How many: 78 million       
What they grew up with: The civil rights movement; assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King; Vietnam War; TV in every home; sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll; Woodstock; Roe v. Wade; Watergate       
Values and characteristics: Love/hate relationship with authority; optimism, personal gratification; team players; strong work ethic       
Work ethic: Driven       
Presence in typical law firm: 45% to 60%       
Roles in firm: Partners and leadership            

Gen X   

Born: 1965 to 1980       
How many: 59 million       
What they grew up with: HIV/AIDS epidemic; hippie parents; latch-key kids; corporate downsizing and restructuring; fall of Berlin Wall; first personal computers       
Values and characteristics: Not impressed by authority; distrust of institutions; want personal space; informality; self-reliance       
Work ethic: Balanced       
Presence in typical law firm: 40% to 50%       
Roles in firm: Associates, junior partners            

Gen Y      

Born: 1981 to 1995       
How many: 60 million       
What they grew up with: Oklahoma City bombing; 9/11 terrorist attacks; the Internet boom; ubiquitous technology; economic prosperity       
Values and characteristics: Receptive to authority; civic duty; patriotism; diversity; self-confidence; achievement; challenges       
Work ethic: Selective       
Presence in typical law firm: Less than 5%       
Roles in firm: Summer associates, first- and second-year associates            

Sources: U.S. Census Bureau; NALP Foundation

This article really hit the nail on the head.   Younger women (and men) are leaving firms because their values are different than the previous generation's.  They don't buy into the idea that the one with the most toys (or pie) "wins" and simply aren't willing to sacrifice their private lives for the sake of the almighty firm. 

I can't emphasize enough that it's not simply women who feel this way. By way of example, I recently caught up with a male classmate of mine from law school via email.  He had previously worked in a large firm in a large city and now owns a successful law-related company.  In other words, his is the alternative legal career that many of my generation seek out. 

In one email, he explained why he left life in a law firm:

I'm a lot happier now that I'm not practicing.  I loved law school, and practice when I was single, but when you mix in a family it doesn't seem a realistic career path if you want to have any quality of life.

Straight from the mouth of a Gen X lawyer of the male species.  It's the mantra of a generation of young lawyers.

And, if legal employers don't take heed and change their ways, and quickly, they may very well find themselves facing a shortage of bottom feeders.  And, without the grunt workers holding up the foundation of the system, it'll all come tumbling down. 

Some of you may be shaking your heads at my naivety.  You think that I'm totally off base.   You think that there will always be plenty young 'uns available to fill entry level positions.  You think that an associate is a dime a dozen. 

10 bucks says you're a Boomer.  Care to wager?


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I'm a Gen X MALE attorney who wants nothing to do with law firms. The whole economic structure of the law firm just leads to a terrible life style. Imagine every five minutes you spend chatting with a colleague about the game or the news, thinking "this is five less minutes I have with my family." In addition, the emphasis on client recruitment over quality legal work is another reason who law firms are terrible places for those who actually enjoy the practice of law.

gladys garcia

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The perceived range of options diminishes as individuals become increasingly specialized in specific functions or roles. X’ers crave options, which assuage your concerns about being backed into a corner, laid off from one path. The sense of narrowing career paths and increased vulnerability is often most palpable at the transition from middle to upper management – just where many of you are today. This step also often brings demands for relocation and separation from established social networks – an additional assault on your sense of self-reliance.

California Dui

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