Research Reports

From 1L to 401(k): A Pilot Study of the Later Stages of Lawyers’ Careers (GR 11-01)

Although much has been written about the early stages of lawyers’ careers and the “path to partnership” (a path not well traveled by women in this field), there has been a dearth of research into the maturing of lawyers’ careers and the transition to retirement. This research investigated whether gender differences observed in the career choices and constraints of younger lawyers disappeared or persisted in later career stages, and whether these differences affected decisions to wind down careers.

The core of the project involved re-interviewing a small number (46) of male and female lawyers who completed an American Bar Foundation–conducted survey when they were in law school in 1975. The interviews linked law school aspirations (obtained in the 1975 survey) to career trajectories, including the end of legal careers, and explored whether gender had an impact on career outcomes and, if so, how. The data, collected during face-to-face interviews, consisted of life-history narratives, formal resumes, and life-history calendars.

In addition to the qualitative data, a snapshot of the career outcomes of the original survey respondents from three of the original seven law schools surveyed in 1975 (n = 599) was collected through Internet search engines. Career outcomes were analyzed in terms of early career aspirations and law school type (elite, state, urban) and were compared to the trajectories and aspirations of relatively young lawyers who participated in the recent After the JD study.

Where are they now? A surprising number of those surveyed in 1975 continue to practice law. Analysis of factors that might predict career outcomes 30 years after the original survey revealed that gender was the most consistent factor affecting outcome. Not surprisingly, perhaps, female lawyers were less likely to be found practicing law 30 years after law school. The analysis revealed significant differences by school type as well as some differences accounted for by the social capital (i.e., parents’ education and elite undergraduate education) that individuals brought to their careers. Results were consistent with the findings from the After the JD project.

Career trajectories. The interviews revealed particular, identifiable moments across career trajectories where the lawyers encountered gender traps that had the potential to change the face of their careers or kill their careers altogether. These moments were having young children, a “20 year itch,” the empty nest, and retirement. Lawyers circumvented these gender traps in a number of ways. Although male and female lawyers described different strategies, several themes emerged that explained their connections and commitment to their work. These included family links and supports (i.e., career decisions that supported families and vice versa); workplace solidarity, including important connections to coworkers and to the practice; and more general orientation to work that one could describe as “career culture.”

The original proposal considered an examination of gender differences in retirement strategies. Few of the lawyers who were interviewed, however, were old enough to consider the prospect of retirement as more than an abstraction. Still, the conversation about “next steps,” including “slowing down,” was a bit different for male and female lawyers. The latter seemed more able to contemplate life beyond law.

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