Why Women Lawyers Leave

Later this month, my colleague Jennifer Bird and I will be leading our seventh workshop for women attorneys considering a career change, whether within the law or outside the law altogether.

For those outside the law, it's hard to understand why someone would consider walking away from a high salary in such a well-respected profession. Yet this group of women attorneys is one of the most well qualified to explain why money doesn't buy happiness.

About three quarters of the women who attend our workshops are employed at mid-to-large-sized law firms in the NYC area. The rest work at smaller firms or in public interest positions. They are typically in their late 20s, 30s and 40s, and anywhere from one to six years out of law school. As a whole, they are smart and accomplished women who worked hard to get where they are. What they all have in common: dissatisfaction with their jobs and a desire to find a better fit, combined with uncertainty about their future career options.

Here are some of the most common reasons why women choose to spend the day with us to explore their alternatives:

Chained to the BlackBerry.
With few exceptions, attorneys in our workshops overwhelmingly talk about the lack of work-life balance as a primary reason they are burnt out, frustrated and seeking a change. Many describe situations with "zero flexibility" and an expectation that they are "always on call." This is even from workplaces that claim otherwise on their websites. The hours are described as long and "out of control" resulting in an inability to make plans outside of work and stressful workplaces with "intense pressure."

Lack of meaning. I suspect that women in law would find the hours more tolerable if the content of the work itself felt more purposeful. Instead, participants in our workshops talk about often feeling like a "cog in the wheel" and helping wealthy corporate clients get even wealthier. Some describe the work as "not engaging or challenging" and "dry or boring". Long hours at a job lacking in greater meaning eventually takes a toll on many of the women we meet.

Toxic or dysfunctional environments or people. While this is not true in every case, some women in our workshops talk about senior staff or clients as micromanaging or "abusive" in the extreme, resulting in continual daily anxiety. Others describe a constant fear of making mistakes.

Not much to aspire to. Whether right after law school or several years in, women start to ask, "Is this all there is?" The "move up or out" mantra sets in, leaving women at a crossroads: Do they work their way up to partner or get out of the profession altogether before it feels too late to make a change? Unfortunately, with fewer women at the top to serve as role models, and environments that do not match what they are looking for long-term, women in our workshops report feeling there is no where to go professionally, especially when the long road to partner does not prove an appealing goal.

To be sure, women at our workshops do acknowledge the bright side of the law. This includes professional well-resourced environments, smart colleagues, learning new skills and expertise, and the benefits of the higher compensation levels are not lost on them. Yet, the challenges are strong enough to outweigh these positives, causing them to seek a change.

It's not easy for any attorney contemplating a career transition to figure out what is right for her. Some need a less dramatic change such as a different and better company culture. Others know right away they need to shift their identity away from "lawyer" to something new and unknown, which is scary and a process that can take time.

While we may not be able to tell each participant in our workshop exactly what is right for her, what we do know is there are always options and the possibility for something more, and a thoughtful process that can help you get there.

Thanks to Jennifer Bird for contributing to this post.