'It's exhausting': Why women want out of the legal profession

6 minute read
Register now for FREE unlimited access to Reuters.com

(Reuters) - The results of a recent survey about why lawyers want to leave the profession might have been a surprise to researchers, but Jeena Cho is unfazed.

"It's a recipe for burnout," said the lawyer, who is also the author of The Anxious Lawyer and is a mindfulness instructor working with law firms on well-being.

Patrick Krill, an attorney and substance abuse counselor who co-authored the report, said he was astonished by the stark differences in men and women's experience of being a lawyer. Among them: A quarter of women lawyers said they were thinking about leaving the profession due to mental health issues, stress or burnout, compared with 17% of male respondents.

Register now for FREE unlimited access to Reuters.com

Work-family conflict was the top factor pushing women in the legal industry to consider a different line of work, according to the research.

The study included 2,863 working legal professionals in California and Washington, D.C., and was published in open-access journal PLOS ONE (Stress, drink, leave: An examination of gender-specific risk factors for mental health problems and attrition among licensed attorneys).

The survey also found that although stress was the main issue for men who want to leave the law, women experienced stress at greater rates than men: Two-thirds of women reported moderate to severe stress, compared with less than half of men, my Reuters colleagues reported last week.

Krill told me the findings suggest that "women are confronted with a choice: They can be a practicing lawyer or a mother, but maybe not both.

"There's apparently too much of a tension between having a family and practicing law for many women, and that's something we need to, as a profession, get more serious about tackling," Krill said.

I spoke with Cho, whose book focuses on meditation and is sponsored by the American Bar Association, about how stress is more of a factor for women in law and what that says about the profession.

Cho happened to be dealing with some routine-but-stressful parenting matters shortly before we got on a Zoom call. She took an aside at first to say how taxing it is providing full-time care – things like afternoon snacks – to a two-year-old daughter while working full-time, and during a pandemic. Despite having a supportive partner who is also a lawyer, she said, parenting "just takes up a lot of cognitive space that doesn't really fall on my husband."

The following answers have been edited for length and clarity.

REUTERS: What do you think of the gap between how men and women who are lawyers feel about their jobs?

CHO: Frankly, I'm surprised it's just 25% (of women lawyers that are thinking about quitting). It's exhausting, I can say personally, balancing work with being a primary caregiver, and to compound that with all the trauma folks have been experiencing at a heightened level (due to the COVID-19 pandemic), it just feels unsustainable.

REUTERS: It seems fair to say the legal profession was structured by and for men, at least historically. Do you think it's also fair to say that the job is still basically exclusionary toward women?

CHO: Yes. We keep having studies over and over confirming (it) via data. We're still in some ways practicing law in a very similar fashion as we did when it was mostly men practicing.

And it's not just law firm structure, but even looking at our legal system as a whole. It wasn't designed with moms in mind. It wasn't that long ago that I was breastfeeding my daughter and a lot of courthouses to this day still don't have a mother's room where you can go pump, and that's just a very simple example of how the job is not designed to be accommodating to women at all.

A lot of people in leadership are still overwhelmingly white and male, and I think they have a vested interest in keeping that status quo because it's been working for them.

REUTERS: What do you think is necessary for the profession to take those findings seriously?

CHO: I think we just need a lot more women and people of color in leadership, to the point where 'marginalized' is the majority. And unfortunately, every study (of diversity) that comes out about the legal field, it seems the numbers hold steady or actually go backward."

REUTERS: What kinds of accommodations are needed for women in the legal profession, both during the pandemic and after?

CHO: So many things, including requiring men to take paternity leave. There's a fair amount of research showing that it goes a long way toward well-being – having both the men and women take more ownership of raising kids – if men are made to take paternity leave at the same rates.

One really common complaint, especially from younger attorneys, is having to answer e-mails at all hours. Of course, we are lawyers, and exceptions can be made if you're in the middle of a jury trial or something, but having a clear policy that they're not expected to respond during certain hours is important.

Making inclusion and belonging should be a core foundation. There's this way we're supposed to show up at work that's like a caricature of who we are, and this especially affects women and (people of color). It's important to really create an atmosphere of inclusion without delegating it to the diversity and inclusion person. It has to be embodied by every single person in the law firm, and I think very few are getting that right."

Opinions expressed here are those of the author. Reuters News, under the Trust Principles, is committed to integrity, independence and freedom from bias.

Register now for FREE unlimited access to Reuters.com

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which, under the Trust Principles, is committed to integrity, independence, and freedom from bias.

Thomson Reuters

Hassan Kanu writes about access to justice, race, and equality under law. Kanu, who was born in Sierra Leone and grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland, worked in public interest law after graduating from Duke University School of Law. After that, he spent five years reporting on mostly employment law. He lives in Washington, D.C. Reach Kanu at hassan.kanu@thomsonreuters.com