Helping a firm retain its women partners

The Challenge

A midsized boutique law firm wanted to improve its retention rate for women partners. It was a close-knit firm that prided itself on its collegiality. Each departure of a female partner not only hurt its business, but also hurt morale. The firm hired me to help it figure out why women were leaving and what it could do to keep them.

The Process

It was clear from the outset that one of the main reasons women leave organizations—a lack of family-friendly policies—was not an issue here, as the firm had implemented comprehensive practices and policies. To learn why women were leaving this particular firm, I interviewed members of the executive committee, current and former women partners, and some of the male partners. I analyzed the information that I received, looked for trends, and facilitated a series of meetings. Then, I presented my findings to each of the groups that I had interviewed to give each the opportunity to discuss my findings and agree with, disagree with, or add to them. Finally, everyone who had participated, other than the partners who had left, met to discuss what steps to take based on my research and their discussions. Throughout the process, I met regularly with the two partners overseeing the project to provide them with feedback and to get their input.

The Result

It turned out that there were varied reasons the women were less satisfied, and less likely to stay at the firm, than the men. Some of the primary ones were (1) that the women did not think they were compensated as well as the men, in large part because the women, as a group, spent more nonbillable time on firm management issues, for which they were not compensated or recognized; (2) that the firm appeared to judge women more harshly and be less tolerant of their errors or idiosyncrasies; (3) that many women were not well integrated into the firm. The lawyers were collegial, but the men usually socialized with the men, and the women with the women. Since there were a lot more men than women, the women felt isolated; and (4) that since lawyers tend to give work to lawyers they know, the men were more likely to give work to other men. In response, the women developed their own clients, which meant the women were more mobile and thus more easily lured away by other firms.

The firm took steps to address all of these issues, including reducing and redistributing nonbillable tasks; engaging in open conversations about how to treat men and women equally; instituting social activities designed to help people in the firm get to know each other better; and reviewing its approach to succession planning to ensure that women as well as men were groomed to take over large institutional clients as senior partners retired.