“Lean In” to What?

Shangri-LaI’ll withhold judgment on Sheryl Sandberg’s book until I actually read it, but the impending publication seems to have reignited an old debate:

How much should we collectively worry about the dismal retention rates for women (and minorities) in large law firms?

Does it matter if these firms remain bastions of the old white guys? And, if it matters, is it okay to pressure people to stick around, even if they’d rather bail out and reclaim a little “me” time? (Or, I don’t know, get a full night’s sleep every now and then?)

To certain ears, it’s heretical for me to say this, but I just can’t work up too much angst about the fact that women are leaving BigLaw in droves. Why wouldn’t they?

Let’s look at the facts:

  • You’re probably not going to make partner. I think we can all agree that BigLaw is an “up or out” system for the most part. Sure, there are exceptions with very specialized of counsel positions, but — basically — you can’t stick around for the long term unless you make partner. Out of curiosity, I looked up one of the several firms I summered at, to see how many partners they made this year: Less than ten (and a few of those were people who were way, way behind their class year so they don’t really count). I can’t remember exactly how many people were in my summer class, but I seem to recall it was around 150. I’m not much of a gambler, but I probably wouldn’t place too many chips on a bet returning less than 5%.
  • There are other, better paths to power. One argument that’s often made for why women have to stay in BigLaw is that it’s “where the power is” in the profession. In this version of the world, the best and highest indication of power is a seat on the compensation committee of a large law firm. (I’m not making this up. This argument has been made to me directly, in person.) I’m gonna have to call bullshit on this. A) If money = power, there are easier ways to make a lot of money (personally, I’d suggest private equity, but you pick your poison). B) This money-centric view of power (where power = the ability to decide how much your other “partners” are going to make) is just ridiculously limiting. Hillary Clinton doesn’t have power? Should she have stayed in a law firm instead of becoming Secretary of State? Should Barack Obama have returned to Sidley as an associate instead of becoming a community organizer? Should everyone doing impact litigation quit en masse and apply for law firm jobs? Not buying it.
  • BigLaw is a dysfunctional mess, and it’s only going to get worse in the near future. If you haven’t watched BigLaw Growth is Dead? Here’s What’s Next, I commend it to you. These firms have p-r-o-b-l-e-m-s. Sure, some specific categories are doing well (the very top firms, certain boutiques, etc.), but the vast, undifferentiated middle group (where the average BigLaw employee toils) is facing real challenges. You’ve got client pressure to control bills, technology replacing many of the rote, gravy-train tasks that used to bring in steady fees, lower-cost competitors springing up left and right, and the ongoing threat that your best people might lateral for a chance at higher pay elsewhere. What’s the only solution? Bruce nails it in the video: Everyone works more hours. Fun! That’s really going to be awesome, when you’re already billing most of your waking hours. Oh, right, and there’s no overtime, so all your extra work doesn’t benefit you at all. (See point one.)

Don’t get me wrong — I agree there are some very good reasons to start your legal career in BigLaw, if that’s an option.

But this idea that you’re somehow obligated to stay for very long once you’ve gotten what you came to get out of the experience doesn’t resonate with me.

I think of the people who “leaned in” at some of the firms I passed through:

  • There was the new mother I saw night after night at midnight, one, two, three in the morning. I finally asked her how she was managing this schedule with a three-month-old, and she told me that she — quite literally — forgot she had a child most of the time. She quit, shortly thereafter.
  • There was the associate who didn’t have time to go to the doctor when something was clearly wrong, and ended up with a permanent disability.
  • Or just the string of run-of-the-mill broken relationships, divorces, breakdowns, and freakouts that result when too much pressure goes on for too long with too little institutional support.

Modern BigLaw practice isn’t pretty, for the most part. (Maybe there’s a Shangri-la out there somewhere, but every large law firm loses associates in droves. I challenge you to name one that doesn’t.)

A (male) friend of mine in law school had a theory that you could figure out where the least-bad place to work was by looking at the average number of divorces per partner. He wanted to create a BigLaw Misery Index based solely on this metric. It wouldn’t be a bad statistic to have, really, to weigh alongside of average profits per partner.

After all, if you’re going to lean in, it’s wise to know what you’re leaning into.

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Read On:

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  1. Great post.

    Some of my “lean in” former superiors: 1) the woman who had full time live-in help and was advertising for a new nanny/au pair, because the child was now 5 and she (big partner) and big partner husband ‘weren’t ready to raise her yet,” 2) the woman with three adopted kids who never saw them (the nanny did) because if she could just grow her book even bigger, management would have to take her seriously [I class this as tragically deluded], and 3) the woman who went into labor and had her water break in a conference room, doing a deal. Number 2 was the one who told me to lean in.

    There are also the (now, after 13 years in practice) 7 attorneys I knew who committed suicide. BigLaw didn’t kill them directly, but it had a hand in each one. Three deaths were violent and in front of others. Really, is that how you want to go out?

    All of these folks need to visit a funeral home, or an ICU, and have it pointed out that you get one life, and that life will end – is this really how you want to spend it? Really, really?

  2. Agreed! It is totally wrong to pressure individuals to hang in, to “take one for the team.” The feminist movement is about enabling and honoring choices. If you’re unhappy at BigLaw, you’re very unlikely to make partner and go on to greater glory/power. Cut your losses.

    The bigger question is whether you should start your legal career at BigLaw. It can provide good training (perhaps at the cost of your health & relationships) and can be a stepping stone to a more rational career (in house or smaller firm). However, BigLaw can be seductive – no matter how miserable you are. I was a deal “junkie” and loved having the inside scoop on deals that were rumored and then featured on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. Also, it’s very hard to walk away if you’re getting reviews and you’re “only” a few years from the partnership decision.

    Hoping for an offer from BigLaw? Remember grandma’s admonition, “With every wish there comes a curse.”

  3. Great post. I work with many female clients (looking to leave the law) and the appeal of the Big Firm (the supposed money, the defined path, the perceived one way to continue to gain ROI on the “investment” made into law school way back when) all keep many female lawyers practicing. Even though they are not happy.

    While I’m a capitialist and hell bent on success myself, we need to pause and wonder why our media and social mores continue to celebrate an individual’s revenue generation abilities and corporate power . . . and not the time they just cuddle with their kids.



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