Kerry Arnold was at the top of his game. A determined trial lawyer representing pharmaceutical, tobacco and energy giants, she rose to become a senior partner at one of America’s most prestigious law firms despite having to take time off to have two children, despite the obstacles still faced by ambitious women in the legal industry. was facing ,
Then came the coronavirus pandemic, and a time to reflect. “I don’t want to say I was burnt out – that’s a much overused phrase,” the 49-year-old said. But “I’ve been thinking [about] What was I putting into work and what was it doing to me. , , I was at home, and you have time to think and evaluate your life.”
Being able to have breakfast with her daughters, Arnold considered retiring when a recruiting call came from Washington trial boutique Wilkinson Steckloff, a six-year-old firm co-founded by a few dozen lawyers and a woman. Beth Wilkinson.
The firm was a small company compared to Arnold’s employer, the 1,000-lawyer-strong Arnold & Porter, but the prospect of a more flexible and accommodating working environment was hard to resist.
She said people at the firm were too comfortable saying “I’ll be back online later”. “I was very attracted to the small firm aspect of it.”
Arnold is apparently not alone. Research by Leopard Solutions, a data company focused on the legal profession, found that only 2,987 women who previously worked in the top 200 law firms will land in rival firms of similar size in 2021, compared to 4,090 men .
Analysts say although it is difficult to track where the rest end up, it is likely that they have either left the sector altogether, or flocked to smaller firms.
The young partners were motivated by the lockdown-induced realization that “if I partnered, my life wouldn’t be better, it would be worse”, said Laura Lepard, founder and chief executive of the data company.
“They know it’s not going to be different at another big law firm,” said Elena Deutsch, a consultant to women who have left large firms since 2017. Female Deutschs end up working in small firms or in other legal roles, while the remainder leave the profession altogether.
Such data chimes with a stubborn tendency in the legal industry. The National Association of Women Lawyers, which surveyed the field for 15 years, concluded in 2022 that “women are entering the legal field as law school graduates, and an equal number of, and often more, women are leaving” than men. Profession early and more often”.
Even though “such a huge amount of money is being spent on diversity, inclusion and equity. , , The needle is not moving,” said Andy Kramer, who opened his own Chicago-based firm in early January after 30 years at legal giant McDermott Will & Emery.
Although she believed McDermott “stepped forward” on gender issues, big law firms that fail to nurture female talent “may be shooting themselves in the foot”, Kramer said. , who has written about sexism in the industry.
Lack of opportunity for promotion may be a primary driving force behind defection. In a separate survey conducted by Leopard last year to examine gender disparities at large law firms, more than 70 percent of female respondents said that “their career trajectory prompted them to relocate, an indication that many women feel excluded from opportunities for advancement”.
Direct discrimination has also not disappeared from the industry. In early January, an attorney at a Cleveland firm specializing in labor and employment law was fired after sending a message to a co-worker accusing her of “sitting on her ass” while on maternity leave.
The perks that motivated many women to pursue a high-flying career in the face of such challenges have also lost their appeal in the pandemic.
“What I’ve seen is reputation [of Big Law] has lost . , , Its glowy when you are working from home 24/7 in your yoga pants,” Deutsch said. He said that during the lockdown, his clients were “expected to work nonstop, because the assumption was that you have nothing better to do”.
Demands by some firms that lawyers return to the office at least a few days a week are now being treated with skepticism, said Debra Pickett, a legal industry consultant who advises diverse and innovative firms. .
“The firms were undeniably successful – they were doing well [during Covid]So saying that you need to go back to the way things were was hollow,” she said.
Wilkinson Stekloff’s comparatively gentle pace and flexible culture that attracted Arnold from Arnold & Porter has helped the firm attract talent from the public sector. Grace Hill quit her job as a federal prosecutor after a mother of two — who tried a case during the pandemic without any child care — sought to go part-time while continuing to work on challenging cases.
Even when child care was available, “I didn’t want anyone else taking my son to soccer games, or doing his homework with him,” said Hill, who is now Microsoft’s representative in its performance with the FTC. is representing.
When it came to considering going into private practice, it mattered that Wilkinson Stekloff was headed by a woman, she said, as did the size of the firm.
“I would not have gone to a big law firm.”
If you are a woman who left a large law firm in the past 12 months and want to tell us what inspired you to make the move, please post a comment below or email [email protected] With BIGLAW in the subject line.