I am willing to bet that billable hours -- and its unfortunate effects on law firm culture -- is the biggie in terms of why women are less likely than men to stick around at a law firm long enough to rise through the ranks.
PART A: FOR NON-LAWYERS: WHY BILLABLE HOURS SUCK
Billable hours suck royally. Sometimes it is hard to explain to people outside the profession why billable hours requirements are so debilitating. At my last firm, lawyers were expected to bill 1800 hours of our time to clients per year. That amounts to between 38 and 39 hours a week, assuming that the attorney takes her four weeks vacation (HA!) and every holiday (not bloodly likely). When I was kvetching about this to my brother-in-law who works at a 9-to-5 job, he said, "Oh, well that doesn't sound so bad. Most people work 40 hours a week."
The problem is that it's not like you just punch in, fasten widgets steadily throughout the day, and then punch out. The time you spend doing client work is harder to quantify because it is thinking work. When I am developing an argument for a pleading, I might pace around while I think it through. And as I am thinking it out, maybe my mind wanders, and I am not thinking about the case the whole time I am pacing. So then I have to try to come up with a reasonable estimate as to how much time I actually spent developing my argument. Or maybe it will simply take me a lot longer to figure out my argument then I can reasonably bill to a client. (The client sees the crisp, clear final product and then says, "What?!?!? It took you FOUR hours to figure this out?") Also, if you are doing a lot of small tasks like writing letters or making phone calls, you lose time when you shift gears between tasks. And it's not like you're on an assembly line without any distractions. You also lose time because the phone rings, your secretary has a quesion, people pop in to say "hi," and you therefore get distracted. My old boss claimed that it takes about 12 hours at the office to bill 8 hours in a day. That seems about right, based on my experience.
On top of the difficulty of actually generating the required billable hours is the fact that law firm lawyers have a lot of other time-consuming responsibilities that are not billable. These non-billable responsibilities include speaking at seminars and preparing seminar materials, publishing articles, producing newsletters for clients, attending social events with clients, attending in-house meetings, working on in-house administrative tasks (such as interviewing prospective hires, or rewriting the firm's employment manual), working on pro bono cases (cases taken free of charge for indigent clients), and meeting the required 12 hours per year of Continuing Legal Education credits for maintaining one's bar membership.
The most demoralizing aspect of billable hours for me occurs when I am on top of all my cases and don't have any pressing case-related reason to work over the weekend. But then I realize, "Yeah, I may be on top of all my cases, but I am behind on my billable hours so I need to work ahead this weekend on my non-pressing matters so I can then volunteer for more work later and thus meet my billable requirements." I HATE working when I don't need to just for the sake of producing billable hours.
I should also note that the 1800 hour requirement at my last firm is actually considered modest in many locales. My current firm also has an 1800 hour requirement but you are actually expected to bill about 2000 hours in order to advance within the firm. I have heard that, in major metropolitan areas, it is not unheard of for attorneys to be struggling to meet billable hours requirements of 2200 or 2400 hours.
And to make matters worse, for the most junior associates, the tasks that they are asked to do in the largest law firms are often mind-numbingly tedious -- like reviewing thousands of pages of documents, many of which are irrelevant, to determine what is important to a particular case. I think for many of them it is hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel, to envision a day when they will be asked to take on more responsibility or do more exciting, creative and analytical tasks.
PART B: WHY THE SUCKINESS OF BILLABLE HOURS IS MORE LIKELY TO DRIVE WOMEN THAN MEN AWAY FROM LAW FIRMS
The billable hour model often requires even the most efficient lawyers to work around the clock, on weekends, and on holidays. If you are inefficient or have a blog that you spend time on, God help you. Both male and female associates suffer under this regime, but it is more likely to drive female associates away for a number of reasons.
A) For various cultural reasons, women often are reluctant to engage in self-promotion, a fact I noted in the previous post. Since billable hours is sometimes about estimating how much time you spend on a project, women are at a disadvantage because they are more inclined to underestimate how much time they spent. When I first started billing, I often found myself thinking, "I know I timed my work on this motion at 8 hours, but I can't believe that this work could have taken me that long, so I'll just put down 4." I self-edited my time both consciously and, I think, unconsciously. After I got favorable results on a few summary judgment motions and in my first civil jury trial, I found that I was more confident in my work and therefore more inclined to bill for all my time, but I still struggle with this issue. I suspect men tend to be more likely to think well enough of themselves to bill all their time.
B) Women are operating under both internalized and externalized expectations that they will be the primary caretakers for their children. It is (I imagine) awfully difficult (if not impossible) to work around the clock, including holidays and weekends, when you are the primary caretaker for a young child.
C) Even if you are splitting childcare duties 50-50 with your spouse, it is (I imagine) awfully difficult (if not impossible) to work around the clock, including holidays and weekends, and take care of a child. Women generally can expect at best a 50-50 arrangement with a spouse and even that is not good enough if you are a lawyer at a major law firm. Men who have a 50-50 arrangement with a spouse for childcare are in the same boat. BUT the thing is that there are always going to be men with wives who take on ALL of the household and childcare responsibilities, whereas there will rarely be women who have husbands who take on ALL of the household and childcare responsibilties. So the people most likely to succeed in a law firm are the childless, or people (almost always men) who have spouses fully dedicated to childcare.
D) A lot, if not most lawyers, I know at large-ish law firms are absolutely miserable. As one lawyer in the New York Times article noted, "They don't like being part of a billable hour-production unit. They want more meaning out of their lives than that." This goes for both men and women. The problem is that it is a lot more socially acceptable for women to leave either to stay home with children or to take a less lucrative and time consuming position in the public sector or elsewhere. Men are still under this incredible pressure to stick it out in order to be "providers" and take in the greatest possible income that they can. For lawyers, the greatest possible income is usually the income one earns at a large law firm.
PART C: IF LAW FIRM LIFE SUCKS SO BADLY, WHY DOES IT MATTER THAT WOMEN ARE LEAVING?
There are potentially enormous rewards to rising through the ranks in a law firm. These include not only the healthy income, but also the opportunities to exercise considerable influence over the profession of law (although I wish the major law firms would band together and do something about this horrid billable hour issue), and to take on fascinating, complex and high-stakes cases. As one of the women partners quoted in the article stated, "I have found my legal work and public service enormously satisfying, and I would never want to be without that . . . I truly believe that lawyers make a huge difference in society and I think it's a loss when women decide to leave firms."
The problem is that these enormous rewards are often simply not worth the misery of the billable hour regimen, especially for people who have families.