Women Lawyers, Discipline and Leaving the Practice of Law

By Nancy Cohen

In 2014, there were approximately 25,665 active Colorado attorneys. Of these lawyers, 9,317 were women and 16,348 were men. It may come as a surprise that unlike men, women do not remain in the legal profession. In 2014, the largest group (3,002) of female lawyers was in the age range of 30-39 years old. If the current trend continues, by the time they reach the 50-59 age bracket, only two thirds (1,953) of the female lawyers will still be practicing. In contrast, the 60-69 age bracket was the largest group of male attorneys in 2014, with the second-largest age group being the 50-59 category. According to the Colorado Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel’s 2014 Annual Report, there were more female lawyers (615) than male lawyers (532) who entered the profession. In fact, first-year law school classes across the nation have been at least 50 percent female since 2000. Why, then, are women leaving the profession? Are they more dissatisfied? Do they get into more trouble than men? Or, is it because they feel forced out — a perception that could equally apply to lawyers of color?

We all know that practicing law is tough regardless of gender. As clinical studies have shown and wellness articles in The Colorado Lawyer have explored, out of all of the professions, lawyers have the highest rates of depression.

There have been many articles and seminars discussing why female lawyers are more dissatisfied with the practice of law. According to Selena Revvani’s 2014 Washington Post article on the subject, women are twice as likely as their male counterparts to leave large law firms. When asked their opinions about the law firms, female associates rated their firms’ culture and job satisfaction more poorly than male lawyers did. The article also noted that female lawyers’ pay was significantly lower than that of male lawyers, even when accounting for similar work and levels of experience. In a 2014 ABA Journal article by Stephanie Ward, it was noted that female lawyers and judges still continue to earn less — approximately 82 percent-of what their male counterparts make. The fact that female lawyers make less than their male counterparts is a serious problem that needs to be addressed.

Although one might believe that the primary reason for female lawyers leaving the profession altogether is to a raise a family, an interesting 2005 study conducted by the Center for Work-Life Policy found otherwise. According to an examination of the study in The Hidden Brain Drain: Off-Ramps and On-Ramps in Women’s Careers, the top two reasons given by female lawyers were career dissatisfaction and the belief that their careers had reached a stalemate. The impact of the exodus of female lawyers from the practice of law is as visible as it is invisible: By the time female lawyers reach their mid-40s, there are fewer of them who still choose to practice.

Even though there are, and historically have been, fewer women lawyers who remain in the profession, one might assume that the incidences of public discipline and the percentage of female lawyers relative to the overall lawyer population would be the same. If the percentage of female lawyers is, for example, 30 percent, then the number of public discipline cases should be a similar, if not the same, percentage. However, based on a 2000 study by Professors Hatamyar and Simmons, this conclusion is not supported by the empirical data. They reviewed and analyzed disciplinary cases from across the United States and found that female lawyers were disciplined significantly less often than their male counterparts relative to each group’s percentage of the overall lawyer population. In 2000, there were approximately 964,000 licensed attorneys of which approximately 70 percent were men and 30 percent were women. Yet the number of male lawyers who were disciplined was significantly higher relative to their ratio of the overall lawyer population (83.7 percent for male lawyers versus 14 percent for female lawyers). Surprisingly, even the type of discipline that the male lawyers received, with the exception of a single category (suspension), exceeded the disciplinary actions that female lawyers received.

In short, women are not leaving the legal profession because of an increasing number of disciplinary issues. However, the fact that women are quitting the practice of law in greater numbers than their male counterparts might explain why there are gender-based statistical differences for discipline. Whether these statistical differences still hold true today is unknown.

Changes are occurring. At the 2016 ABA midyear meeting, the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession and other organizations sponsored a program that focuses on why the “good guys” are so important in overcoming obstacles to diversity. Yes, it is very important for women to support women and for earlier generations of women lawyers to mentor the young lawyers. As Madeleine Albright put it, “I … think it is important for women to help one another. I have a saying, ‘There is a special place in hell for women who don’t.’”

It is equally important for male lawyers to support female lawyers. There are a number of ways to do so: mentoring; introducing female lawyers to people in positions of power; assisting them with business development; and being supportive of them in meetings, court, and with other colleagues. This also means addressing head-on any comments, subtle or overt, that are, in any way, demeaning, dismissive or alienating.

The legal profession frequently talks about inclusiveness, but the reality of what our profession looks like is very different. According to Deborah Rhode, Ernest W. McFarland Professor of Law at Stanford University, the legal profession, of all professions, is last in the nation for diversity. Law firms of all sizes and government legal offices have to address the reasons why this profession lacks diversity and why female lawyers are leaving in greater numbers than their male counterparts. The energy and passion that lawyers demonstrate every day in their practices and volunteer work must be channeled into action to ensure that all lawyers feel welcome in our profession. We cannot afford to continue losing lawyers who feel excluded from “the club.” Strides have been made, but more must be done if we want to achieve our goal of inclusiveness.

The Denver Bar Association is committed to its value of inclusiveness. This commitment is reflected on every level. I look forward to furthering the progress that has been made in the DBA’s 125 years of supporting attorneys and promoting justice for all.


Nancy CohenNancy Cohen is a partner with Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP. She is part of the firm’s Professional Liability Practice Group and focuses her practice on the defense of legal malpractice and other claims against lawyers, as well as on defending professionals concerning licensure issues. She is president-elect of the DBA and can be reached at nancy.cohen@lewisbrisbois.com.

Previously published in The Docket.