Women Lawyers from Elite Law Schools Leave Practice Sooner — Why?

Last month, Above the Law ran an article, “Stat Of The Week:  The Mysterious ‘Elite Retreat’ Of Women in Law,” which got my attention.  The premise of the article was that the “conventional wisdom” that women lawyers leave Big Law after just a “couple of years” because of work-life challenges is flawed.  Citing research from ALM Intelligence (the same group that recently supported the Major Lindsey Africa study and findings that women law partners earn 44% less than male law partners), Above the Law reported that the timing of departures is more variable and that the proportion of women in law firms declines in a much more “gradual and steady manner over time.”  The data cited shows that women one year out of law school comprise 44% of Big Law lawyers, but women 25 years out compose only 25% of the Big Law lawyer population.

OK.  So far, so good.  The stats are not encouraging, but I believe them.  I never had the impression that there was a mass exodus by women lawyers after just a few years of practice, and I typically have relied on statistics from NALP (National Association for Legal Career Professionals) which show that nearly three-quarters of women lawyers leave Big Law in the first six years of practice.  Six is not “a couple.”

But, the most interesting thing about the Above the Law article was the reporting about an “anomalous subgroup” of graduates of elite law schools and the statistics that women from top law schools have a higher rate of attrition than women from lower-tiered schools.  ALM has identified that as the “Elite Retreat.”

First of all, I am not sure who cares about this.  But, presuming that someone does, the article went on to say that “ALM does not offer a hypothesis for this apparent greater tendency on the part of elite graduates to leave the law earlier.”  Really.  Well, let me put on my thinking cap and make some observations.

First, it seems possible that women from elite law schools (like mine: Georgetown University Law) either have enough money to pay the very high tuition at an elite law school OR those same women become burdened with very high student loan debt.  If we assume the former, having enough money to pay for the high-priced law school spread also means no debt to repay.  Exiting from the profession early on becomes much easier under those facts.

Second, graduates from top law schools tend to get top jobs for top pay, which enables them to pay back student loans at top speed.  Pay back and leave sooner. 

Third, we also could assume (with a little imagination) that the women lawyers from elite law schools, who are saddled with high student loan debt, could easily end up with mates from among the other students at the elite institutions — who may be privileged and elite and go on to really high paying jobs, help pay back the student loans, and make dropping out much easier for the women lawyer mates.

This does not challenge my brain that much.  Elite begets elite, and being elite can make everything so much easier. 

I did not end up as one of the elite on the easy track, and I am sure that many of you did not either.  I was saddled with student loan debt and had no choice but to stay in my chosen profession to pay it back.  AND I am grateful for that.  If I had been a true elite, I might have made a different choice and missed out on so much.

So, I repeat that I am not sure who cares about stats like this.  But stopping short of trying to connect the dots is very disappointing.  So that’s my connection.

What do you think?

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