Law Firms: All Models are Not Equal

According to the American Bar Association, women are entering and graduating law school at roughly 50% but only account for 36% of practicing attorneys. They also only make up 18% of equity partners at law firms. Minority attorney statistics are even more dire: approximately 15% of attorneys are minority and minority attorney partners are less than 10%. These statistics have been fairly consistent for the entire 19 years of my legal career and they aren’t changing for the better. Clearly, the law firm world has a woman and minority problem.

There are many articles out there, some scholarly, some anecdotal, about why the legal profession has a woman and minority problem. The question that intrigues me is not why there are fewer women and minority attorneys practicing law. Rather, it is what are women and minorities doing about it? We know there’s a problem, it’s been around for decades, so what are we doing to change the status quo?

Many large national firms have started women and minority initiatives that seek to address attrition. In response, some firms now offer more flexible schedules, part-time positions, and provide mentoring programs. Such programs can also allow men to have more flexible work arrangements. And yet, if such programs are succeeding, it is occurring slowly. That is because law firms are missing the issue entirely. The issue is not how can they make a kinder and gentler law firm work for women, minorities, and men who want to have a life. The issue is that the traditional law firm model doesn’t work. If attorneys are going to thrive in the law, they must get out of traditional law firms.

Let me be clear. I am not saying that attorneys cannot succeed in law firms. I believe they should not waste their time trying to succeed in the traditional firm model. The traditional firm model was not built by or for us. It was built by traditional men, for traditional men. Men who, in the 1940’s and 50’s lived in a world where women, minorities, and progressive men were largely absent from the workplace. Thus, there was no expectation, and no accommodation for people to both work long hours and actively participate in raising a family. Men worked and climbed the law firm ladder to partnership with the utter assurance that someday, they too would reach the peak of the law firm pyramid and justly share in the success and wealth.

When women started becoming attorneys in larger numbers in the 60’s and 70’s, they could not follow the same path if they desired to take time off to care for their families or work modified schedules to meet family obligations. This is still true today. There is inherent bias and stereotypes that women who have families will be less productive members of the firm. And women’s salaries, work opportunities, and treatment in law firms reflect this.

I know this firsthand. I waited until I was a partner in a law firm before I had my children. However, that didn’t stop equity partners at my firm from asking me, prior to getting pregnant, if I was going to have children, and when. In fact, I was brought in to the firm to transition into a retiring attorney’s practice. However, after I was hired, that attorney wanted assurances that I was not going to have children before he would consider sharing his clients with me. That same attorney had seven children and a stay-at-home wife.

My story is not unique. But perhaps what I did about it is unique. When my first child was four months old, I left and started my solo practice. In addition to being discriminated against for my ability to bear a child, I also knew that I was underpaid. I approached management for a moderate raise only to receive half of what I requested. When I asked why, I was told I was already paid too much. I knew then I could no longer work at a firm that did not value me. Within six months of starting my firm I made more than my yearly salary for the previous year. And I worked substantially less billable hours.

Attorneys who are dissatisfied with their current firm and who have a book of business should leave their firm. They should either start their own practice or look for a law firm model that fits the lifestyle they want to live. Whether raising a family or being treated fairly, attorneys should realize they cannot succeed in a model that doesn’t value them and their life goals. We must disrupt the old model by creating a new model that allows attorneys to live a meaningful life on their terms while reaping the financial rewards they deserve. I am proof that you can do it. Won’t you join me?

Cynthia Morgan-Reed is the CEO of Vanst Law, LLP., a modern law firm that is changing the culture one attorney at a time. If you are interested in joining Vanst, complete the New Partner Candidate Questionnaire.