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The number of women lawyers in the legal profession is growing, albeit slowly. Women currently make up 39% of attorneys in the U.S., up just 5% in 10 years, according to the ABA. However, that may be changing. In 2023, for the first time, women associates outnumbered men at U.S. law firms (50.3%).

While more women are entering the legal profession, their struggles for equity remain. Former ABA President Hilarie Bass has said, “For the most part, law firms underestimate the impediments women face to be successful in law practice…and they overestimate the initiatives they’ve created to try to assist. They think they are doing a lot of things that should make life better for women lawyers, but in fact they underestimate the ongoing challenges.”

What female attorneys want and need in a legal workplace should be a priority for the profession as a whole. From inclusion and mentorship to work-life balance and well-being, women attorneys continue to express their desire to find legal workplaces where they can grow.

We often read about the workplace desires of women attorneys nationally, but we wanted to ask women lawyers in Illinois what is most important to them.

Inclusion matters

Whether female attorneys are referring to their gender or the intersectionality of other diverse characteristics such as race or family structure, they seek the chance to belong in a legal workplace that views diversity as an asset and creates a culture of inclusion.

Omni McCollum, a law student at Northern Illinois University College of Law
Omni McCollum, a law student at Northern Illinois University College of Law

Omni McCollum, a law student at Northern Illinois University College of Law, is currently evaluating what she wants in a workplace.

“As a woman of color,” she said, “the most important thing I look for in a workplace is inclusion and cohesiveness. It is especially important for me to feel like my colleagues are not only my teammates in the workplace, but they are my allies out in the world.”

Being both a female attorney and an attorney of color, McCollum and others want to feel like they are a valued part of the larger legal profession and to create meaningful connections with colleagues to interrupt the isolation that so often plagues diverse attorneys.

Legal workplaces should make room to listen to the voices of all employees, creating structures that respond to their unique needs, such as flexible work policies and opportunities to build relationships with colleagues.

Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) and minority bar associations can also act as a community of support for minority female attorneys and provide guidance in navigating legal workplaces that do not offer the allyship that McCollum and others seek.

Mentorship for retention and growth

According to the 2023 NALP Report on Diversity in U.S. Law Firms, women make up just 28% of partners at U.S. law firms. With fewer examples of women lawyers in leadership, intentional mentorship is key.

New female attorneys need the mentorship of more experienced attorneys, who offer feedback, advice, and pathways to leadership, to help them realize their goals and remain invested in their careers.

Joelle Juarez, a first-year associate at Michael Best & Friedrich LLP
Joelle Juarez, a first-year associate at Michael Best & Friedrich LLP

Joelle Juarez, a first-year associate at Michael Best & Friedrich LLP in Chicago, says that she values “a workplace that invests in their employees and maintains a strong, positive culture…whether through challenging assignments, informal mentors, or educational opportunities.”

Juarez said she appreciates that her law firm invests in its employees through professional development activities like mentorship.

Juarez’s experience as a new female attorney isn’t unique; attorneys early in their careers seek to grow their skill sets through workplaces that invest in their future successes. And, in turn, firms that invest in their attorneys can increase employee satisfaction and rates of retention.

Many law firms, legal organizations, and bar associations have adopted the Commission on Professionalism’s Lawyer-to-Lawyer Mentoring Program, which connects newer and more experienced attorneys for a one-year program.

The Commission’s curriculum is unique in that it not only focuses on practical practice skills, but also teaches attorneys “softer skills” like how to remain professional during tense situations, building your professional reputation, and leveraging opportunities to improve the culture of the legal profession.

Mentoring programs like this are an integral step in providing the structured growth and support opportunities that attorneys desire.

The ongoing quest for work-life balance

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed stressors that can keep female attorneys from achieving the work-life balance so many desire.

During the pandemic, female attorneys—many of whom are also mothers and caregivers—were now full-time in-home caretakers, overseeing the remote education of their children, and managing the well-being of their families amid a global pandemic. All this was on top of working demanding legal jobs, often in an unfamiliar remote environment.

Michelle Sanders, Chief Public Defender for Macon County
Michelle Sanders, Chief Public Defender for Macon County

With or without pandemic-related lockdowns, women often shoulder most of the domestic responsibilities in their homes, families, and communities. This can lead to burnout.

Some legal workplaces actively seek solutions to adapt to the domestic lives of their employees. As the Chief Public Defender for Macon County, Michelle Sanders said, “The most important thing I look for in a workplace is management that sincerely cares about its employees. That means supporting (and sometimes enforcing!) work-life balance and mental-health breaks.”

In creating an inclusive workplace for the attorneys in her office, she said, “With so many of us having small children or aging parents, we need flexibility that allows us to take care of our personal lives when necessary.”

Michele Jochner, attorney at Schiller DuCanto & Fleck LLP
Michele Jochner, attorney at Schiller DuCanto & Fleck LLP

Sanders understands that the balance she provides attorneys in her office can help keep them focused and productive when they are at work and increase their retention.

Michele Jochner, an attorney at Schiller DuCanto & Fleck LLP in Chicago, wrote that providing structured well-being resources and support may be helpful too.

“Surveys reveal that female attorneys strongly value programs relating to lawyer well-being that encourage open and honest discussions about stress, burnout and other mental health issues,” Jochner wrote. “More than a third of lawyers report that guidance and resources related to enhancing mental health and well-being would be of great benefit to their practice, with 44% of women saying wellness resources were highly important.”

Fair pay in the legal workplace

Female attorneys continue to face pay discrepancies regardless of job role or practice area; this is not a new barrier in the legal workplace.

A 2022 survey found that women in-house counsel who are not in non-management roles were paid 14% lower than the average salary for men in the same role.

In another pay data analysis conducted by Syndio, a tech company that helps employers analyze pay data, Vice President Christine Hendrickson notes that “female lawyers’ median weekly pay is 26.5% less than male attorneys and the gap is larger for partners.”

Priti Nemani, founding attorney at Nemani Law, LLC
Priti Nemani, founding attorney at Nemani Law, LLC

While pay is only one piece of creating a satisfying work experience for female attorneys, it is an important one.

Priti Nemani, founding attorney at Nemani Law, LLC in Glenview, Illinois, says she wants a legal job that “pays me what I deserve to be paid.”

However, Nemani, who has been both an employer and an employee, understands that compensation alone isn’t what encourages people to work for—and stay–at a specific law firm.

Also important are things like “showing appreciation for me as an individual and fostering a sense of belonging to a work community rooted in shared values of

Cindy Buys, Southern Illinois University School of Law Professor
Cindy Buys, Southern Illinois University School of Law Professor

compassion and service,” Nemani said.

Southern Illinois University School of Law Professor Cindy Buys echoes the desire to find a legal workplace that offers equity. “What I most want in a workplace is an environment where each person’s unique contributions are truly and equitably valued, respected, and celebrated, ” she said.

Women attorneys have diverse needs, and a legal workplace based on inclusion and equity—or considering each person’s unique circumstances—is essential for the future success of women in law firms.

Legal organizations leading the charge

Many legal organizations are leading advocates for women in the legal profession, both nationally and in Illinois. Some include the Women’s Bar Association of Illinois (WBAI), the Black Women Lawyers’ Association of Greater Chicago, the Central Illinois Women’s Bar Association, the DuPage Association of Women Lawyers, the Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession (IILP), the National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL), and the National Association of Minority and Women Owned Law Firms (NAMWOLF), among others.

However, there are many things that women attorneys can do individually to address gender bias, advocate for the needs of female lawyers, and promote more inclusive and equitable workplaces:

  • Join boards of directors.
  • Educate senior leadership on gender bias.
  • Hire and promote women when possible.
  • Fight biases in your professional and personal life.
  • Seek help for managing work-life balance when necessary.
  • Enlist male allies in educating against gender bias.
  • Take part in mentorship whenever possible, as either a mentor or a mentee.

Staying up to date on issues impacting the legal profession is vital to your success. Subscribe here to get the Commission’s weekly news delivered to your inbox.

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