Why some women are chasing the Big Law for smaller firms

Keri Arnold was at the top of her game. A tenacious trial attorney representing pharmaceutical, tobacco and energy giants, she had risen to become senior partner at one of the US’s most prestigious law firms despite taking time off to have two children, vaulting over the barriers still faced by ambitious women in the legal industry .

Then came the coronavirus pandemic, and time to reflect. “I don’t want to say I was burnt out — that is kind of an overused phrase,” the 49-year-old said. But “I was sort of thinking [about] what I was putting into the work and what it was doing to me . . . I was at home, and you have time to think and evaluate your life.”

Cherishing the breakfasts she was now able to have with her daughters, Arnold considered retiring, when a recruitment call came from Washington trial boutique Wilkinson Stekloff, a six-year-old firm consisting of several dozen lawyers and co-founded by a woman, Beth Wilkinson.

The firm was a minnow in comparison with Arnold’s employer, the 1,000-lawyer-strong Arnold & Porter, but the prospect of a more flexible and accommodating working environment was difficult to resist.

People at the firm seemed to feel very comfortable saying “I’ll be back online later”, she said. “I was very much attracted to the small firm aspect of it.”

Arnold is apparently not alone. Research by Leopard Solutions, a data company focusing on the legal profession, found that only 2,987 women who previously worked at the top 200 law firms landed at rival firms of a similar size in 2021, compared with 4,090 men.

While it is difficult to track where the remainder ends up, it is likely they have either left the sector altogether, or flocked to smaller firms, analysts said.

Younger associates were driven by the lockdown-induced realization that “if I made a partner my life is not going to be better, it is going to be worse”, said Laura Leopard, the data company’s founder and chief executive.

“They know it’s not going to be that different in another Big Law firm,” said Elena Deutsch, a consultant to women leaving large firms since 2017. Of those who decided not to “stay with the devil they know”, about 60 per cent of the Deutsch women work with end up at smaller firms or other legal roles, while the remainder end up abandoning the profession altogether.

Such data chimes with a stubborn trend in the legal industry. The National Association of Women Lawyers, which has surveyed the sector for 15 years, concluded in 2022 that “while women are entering the legal field as law school graduates at a rate equal to, and often exceeding, that of men, women are leaving the profession sooner and more frequently”.

Even though “there’s such a huge amount of money that’s being thrown at diversity, inclusion and equity . . . the needle is not moving”, said Andie Kramer, who opened her own Chicago-based company at the start of January, after 30 years at legal behemoth McDermott Will & Emery.

Although she believed McDermott “did move forward” on gender issues, Big Law firms that are failing to nurture female talent “may be shooting themselves in the foot”, added Kramer, who has written about sexism in the industry.

A lack of opportunity for promotion could be the primary driving force behind the cuts. More than 70 per cent of women respondents in a separate survey by Leopard conducted last year to investigate gender disparities at large law firms said that “the trajectory of their careers drove them to move, a signal that many women feel shut out of advancement opportunities” .

Overt discrimination has also not disappeared from the industry. In early January, an attorney at a Cleveland firm that specialized in labor and employment law was fired after sending a message to a colleague accusing her of “sitting on her ass” while on maternity leave.

The perks that led many women to continue pursuing a high-flying career in the face of such challenges may also have lost their appeal in the pandemic.

“What I’ve observed is that the prestige [of Big Law] has lost . . . its shine when you’re working from home 24/7 in your yoga pants,” said Deutsch. During the lockdown, her clients “were expected to work non-stop, because the assumption was you have nothing better to do”, she added.

Demands by some firms that lawyers return to the office, at least for 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 you need to go back to the way things were rings hollow,” she said.

The comparatively gentle pace and flexible culture at Wilkinson Stekloff that lured Arnold from Arnold & Porter has even helped the firm attract talent from the public sector. Grace Hill left her job as a federal prosecutor after the mother of two — who tried a case during the pandemic with no child care — sought to go part time while continuing to work on challenging cases.

Even when child care was available, “I didn’t want to have someone else take my son to a soccer game, or do his homework with him,” said Hill, who is now representing Microsoft in its showdown with the FTC.

When it came to considering a move into private practice, it mattered that Wilkinson Stekloff was led by a woman, she added, as did the firm’s size.

“I would not have gone to a Big Law firm.”

If you are a woman who has left a Big Law firm in the past 12 months and wants to tell us what inspired your move, please post a comment below or email [email protected] with BIGLAW in the subject line.

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