2015 Year-End Report

Special Issue • December 2015
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Legal Careers

Shifting paths for a changing profession


This transcript is derived from the video above and has been edited for style and for print publication. For more on this topic, read Volume 1, Issue 4.

Legal careers have been changing in very important ways over the past several years, and it’s one of the key things that we are studying here at the Center. Probably our longest-standing undertaking on this subject is a study I’ve been working on for over 20 years called After the JD, which is a ten-year longitudinal study of lawyers’ careers in which we are following 4,000 lawyers from all over the country who entered the bar in the year 2000. We have surveyed them three times: in 2003 when they were very young, in 2007 or 2008, and in 2012. We just finished analyzing the third and last wave of data. There are many important things in that study. The one that I want to emphasize is the increasing mobility of lawyers from that cohort across a wide range of legal jobs. One of the most startling things for me was just how many jobs people had had. In the first 12 years of practice, many lawyers had had four  or more jobs. That is a job change on average every three years. And these are not just positions within the same sector, from one law firm or government job to another for example. These are moves across traditional divides of private practice or government service, from companies to law firms as well as from law firms to companies. We found the same thing among Harvard Law School students in a separate study. Even though many of them started their careers in large law firms, even as soon as five years later, many had left that sector for careers in in-house legal departments or in business. By the time we got ten or fifteen or twenty years out, people had moved across many difference dimensions, from big firms to small firms, from private practice to public service. Mobility for lawyers is a huge area that we need to think about moving forward.

The other big issue is around the changing demographics of the profession. We have been studying all forms of diversity, but I want concentrate on gender diversity because it really is one of the most dramatic areas of change in the legal profession. Law is becoming what sociologists call an increasingly “feminized” profession. This means that a majority of new entrants—and in many countries around the world, an overwhelming majority of new entrants—into the legal profession are women. It is around 50 percent here in the United States, but if you go to countries in Western Europe like Italy or France, it is probably more like 60 percent. If you go to some places in the emerging economies, as many as 70 percent of new law school graduates are women. And, yet the career for a lawyer still is not just for a man, it’s for a man who has wife who doesn’t work. Frankly there are not many of those anywhere in the world today.

In the Harvard Law School Career Study, and in an issue of The Practice entitled “Women as Lawyers and Leaders,” we found that even among this elite group of women, which is by definition a very talented, very qualified group who have had many career advantages, there are still important distinctions between women and men. Let me just mention three briefly.

One is around leadership positions. It’s one thing to be given access to an institution or even to become a partner in a large law firm. It’s quite a different thing to assume a leadership position, particularly one that has real clout in an organization. So when we looked at things roles like managing partners or executive committees or people who were on compensation committees, there was a huge disparity between the number of women and men who held these positions. To the extent that women had leadership positions, they tended to be in areas like a diversity committee, which is incredibly important but doesn’t carry the same clout within an organization.

Second, we found important implications related to having children. Both women and men have children and have families, but when you look at the workforce and what happens to women and men after having children, there are very important distinctions. When we asked both women and men how their employers reacted to their having had a child and how they personally acted after having had a child, there were significant gender differences. Women took actions and had actions taken against them that were detrimental to their careers. As a result, it is not surprising that when we looked at workforce participation among women and men, there was also a dramatic difference. For example, a man with two children was as likely to participate in the full-time workforce as a woman with zero children. That is a dramatic difference and, quite frankly, a dramatic loss of talent.

The last thing that we found with respect to the differences between women and men is also significant for the whole profession: job satisfaction. We asked people if they were satisfied with their careers in a number of different areas. And it turns out there were big differences between satisfaction for women and men, but there was also one common thing that ought to be concerning to the profession. The main difference was that women were much more satisfied with the substance of their work than men were, while men were much more satisfied with the rewards of their work than women were. The thing that was common to both genders is that women and men were both relatively dissatisfied with the control they had over their work, and therefore over their lives.

As we move forward at the Center, we will continue to study the differences between women and men in the profession. In particular, we are very interested in the large number of people, both in After the JD and the Harvard Law School Career Study, who don’t practice law. That has tremendous implications for how we educate lawyers and what we think of as a legal career, particularly when we put it together with some of the bigger changes that we are studying about the blurring together of boundaries between law and other disciplines. We see more and more lawyers who are working in fields other than law. We will examine that and report back to you in The Practice.

2015 Year-End Report Special Issue • December 2015