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When it comes to retaining women: is analysing attrition the way forward?

December 2021

When it comes to retaining women at law firms, it is clear that the problem lies somewhere between entry level and partnership. We know this because the SRA’s diversity data tells us around half of lawyers in law firms are women but that this figure drops to a third by partnership level. The U.K.’s leading firms are acutely aware of this issue, which is why every few years they announce renewed diversity targets concerning women partners (for example, Clifford Chance, Freshfields and Slaughter and May have all published minimum targets of 40 per cent for women in the coming years). But given the historically slow rate of progress achieved through driving senior level targets, is this focus at the top misplaced? And is it time for firms to invest in a much closer look at attrition and the factors contributing to it?

As a woman who left a career in private practice at the associate level, with a network of women peers who have made the same decision, I always wondered why I was not questioned in any meaningful way on what motivated my departure at the time. Since it is clear that law firms fail to retain women at the same rate as their male counterparts and the message from firms is that they want to redress this gender imbalance, it follows that firms should be paying greater attention to why women like me choose to step away from the traditional partnership track.

Analysing attrition is an invaluable way of doing this that is often overlooked as part of firms’ diversity efforts, in part due to some of the challenges it presents. For instance, some women may feel there is little incentive to offer a candid account of the obstacles they faced at the firm since they are now leaving and are unlikely to benefit directly from having shared their views. Others may feel uncomfortable with sharing their accounts internally if there is a perceived risk of relationship or reputational damage that may follow.

While it is true that apathy and apprehension may prevent some women from taking part in the process, in my experience the main reason women leavers do not share the gender-related challenges they have faced is that they simply were not asked the right questions in the first place. The act of posing nuanced, gender-related exit questions can go a long way to encouraging participation as the firm is sending a positive message to women who are leaving that their feedback on this subject is valued.

If women are engaged in a firm-led process that is handled sensitively, this is likely to increase the level of meaningful and valuable information received, which over time will provide the firm with a much stronger understanding of the challenges it needs to address in order to boost retention figures. Moreover, this exercise cannot be done effectively on a sporadic basis – it should consist of a joined up, long term approach to gathering and assessing information.

How can firms do this more effectively? One way that some firms are adopting is to engage external consultants to assist with the process. While most firms offer exit interviews internally, the questions are usually fairly generic and not drafted specifically with women leavers in mind. By contrast, specialist consultants are likely to provide a bespoke questionnaire that deals directly with the challenges of being a woman in the workplace.

Additionally, since the use of a third party creates some distance between the employee leaving and the law firm, this may reduce concerns about the anonymised nature of the interview process, encouraging greater levels engagement. Finally, the employment of specialist consultants can be a cost-effective way to manage the process long term as they are tasked with collecting, monitoring and analysing the data as well as producing reports with recommendations.

This is not to suggest that analysing attrition is a stand-alone solution. The work to retain women at law firms to partnership level should, for instance, begin in earnest at the entry level with measures such as the implementation of senior mentorship and the use of anonymised 360 feedback reviews. Furthermore, the issue of gender imbalance in the workplace is complex and requires a multifaceted approach which, according to studies, includes critically assessing:

  • the firm’s business model and whether it is biased in favour of one gender;
  • work life balance, particularly in the context of family and childcare responsibilities;
  • flexibility with respect to working arrangements;
  • reviewing how performance is measured;
  • unconscious gender bias; and
  • measures to combat burn out and mental health challenges.

Nevertheless, if firms wish to seriously tackle the reasons why they experience a greater loss of female talent between the associate and partner levels then they ought to direct the appropriate resources at the appropriate level rather than focusing disproportionately on meeting senior targets – and tapping into the feedback of women who choose to leave would be a step in the right direction.

To discuss this topic please contact Hodo Ahmed at

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