You can’t blame female associates for dropping out of Big Law. Not only is it a long, painful haul to partnership but the odds are against them. Plus, who wants to deal with all that bro-culture stuff?
But here’s what I find baffling: Some younger female partners—those who stuck it out, defied the odds, and won the Big Law lotto—are also bailing. At a time when they should be ascending the partnership ranks and accruing more power, they’re quitting Big Law cold turkey.
That describes three women who recently abandoned prestigious perches to launch their own firms—Jennifer Wu, a former partner at Paul Weiss; Joyce Sophia Xu, a former partner at Paul Hastings; and Katie Ali, a former partner at Hogan Lovells.
What’s going on? Did their priorities change after they became partners? Or did they become disillusioned because partnership isn’t what it’s cracked up to be?
“Women leave because they don’t feel supported or appreciated, particularly in business development,” Wu told me bluntly.
“I always felt that the value of my contributions to the firm and my ideas were decided by people who don’t look like me,” said Xu.
“I feel I’m doing less explaining, like not having child support today,” said Ali. “I can take time off. I can be an adult.”
‘I Could See What Was Ahead’
Women in the prime of their practice continue to leave Big Law in higher percentages than men. According to Leopard Solutions, in the critical 41-45 age group, only 19% of female lawyers lateraled to another major firm, while 38% of men did so.
There are many reasons behind the disparity, but it’s hard to deny the undercurrent of sexism and bias that courses through the profession.
“Paul Weiss does a great job at recruiting and promoting women but the question is succession,” said Wu, who left Paul Weiss in November with three other partners to form Groombridge, Wu, Baughman & Stone. “Historically, people who inherit are men and people who give out business are also men.”
Women aren’t inheriting clients, and they’re often saddled with administrative work that sucks away time from rainmaking activity.
“Women do a lot of training and recruiting work, and if you’re recruiting at 15 law schools and speaking on diversity panels, it’s hard to find time for business development,” Wu said.
And though Wu felt she was fairly compensated at Paul Weiss—”I was treated equally because I was pretty junior”—she wasn’t optimistic that would continue: ”I saw there was a difference at higher levels. I could see what was ahead. When I was coming up, most of the senior women were service partners, and they were fungible.” The problem, she added, is that, “subconsciously, firms aren’t used to the idea that women can be rainmakers.”
Xu also felt she faced bias because she didn’t fit the traditional image of a partner. Despite having a substantial book of business and unique expertise—”I have 22 years of experience in derivatives, one of the few people in the world with that specialty,” Xu noted—she said her low-key style made her less credible to some lawyers at Paul Hastings. “Because I’m a nice person and not political, some people were puzzled how I ever made partner.”
Xu is hardly a shrinking violet—she was audacious enough to run to become the chair of Paul Hastings last year (she lost to Frank Lopez). But she suggested that being both female and Asian made it harder for the firm’s leadership to accept her.
“The power structure is set and it’s hard to break into,” said Xu, who has formed a solo practice, Joyce Xu Law LLC. “I wasn’t given the support for my practice.”
Former Hogan partner Ali, however, said her decision to leave Big Law was not driven by the challenges she faced as a woman. “It was a pull not push factor; we wanted to devote a bigger percentage of our work to civil rights work.” She launched her firm—Ali & Lockwood LLP—with a former associate last year.
Ali also attributes the pandemic for galvanizing her to leave Big Law. “When we practiced remotely, there was no fancy office or espresso machine—we got used to operating in a leaner environment.”
The added bonus of starting her own firm is flexibility and more control over her life, Ali said. Though she said people were understanding at Hogan about her child care schedule, Ali added that “most of the partners had stay-at-home spouses or spouses who didn’t have demanding jobs.”
‘I’m Choosing Myself’
Call it what you will but it’s hard to deny that Big Law reflects a more rigid, competitive male ethos. “The mindset is that if we’re not increasing our PPP [profits per equity partner], we’re not a premier firm and in a state of decline,” Xu said. ”There are a few people who make an enormous amount of money, then you have the exploited class—the people who feed this big machine.”
None of these women seem remotely nostalgic for Big Law. If anything, they seem liberated.
“When I became a Paul Weiss partner, it was like, ‘Wow, they chose me,’” Wu said. ”But now I’m choosing myself. You don’t realize you have a monkey on your back until you leave.”
Said Xu: “All of a sudden, I have all the freedom in the world to structure things the way I want.”
But what does all this bode for the future of women at major firms? And if progressive firms like Paul Weiss and Hogan are losing women, what does it mean for the rest of Big Law?
“It’s a good question and it is troubling,” Ali said.
Though she’s encouraged that Hogan’s new class of partners is 58% women and more firms are electing female leaders, Ali sounded a cautionary note.
“I think it will all make a difference but a lot of soft tasks still fall on women,” she said. “It’s a lot when you have to bill 2,000 hours a year, mentor the next generation of lawyers, do recruiting, and carry the mental load. I think a lot of progress has been made but it’s still challenging.”
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