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Grants Reports

Leaving Law and Barriers to Reentry: A Study of Departures From and Reentries to Private Practice (GR 13-02)

by Fiona M. Kay, Stacey Alarie, and Jones Adjei, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada

Executive Summary

Numerous studies report an overrepresentation of women among those leaving the profession of law. Although research has documented high turnover among female lawyers, particularly from private practice, only a handful of studies have explored the factors precipitating the decision to leave. The main causal factors identified to date include difficulties associated with combining family life and law practice, and problems of discrimination and blocked career advancement.

In this report we analyze data from a longitudinal study of nearly 1,600 Ontario lawyers, surveyed across a 20-year period. Our analysis involves mixed methods, incorporating both statistical analysis of survey responses and detailed comments offered by participants. We employ survival models to estimate the timing of transitions out of private practice and to examine factors precipitating exits from private practice. The qualitative data provide further exploration into the motives underlying departures from private practice and barriers for those seeking to return to private practice.

We find that women are leaving private practice at higher rates than men. These departures appear to be largely the consequence of organizational structures and a practice culture that remain resistant to flexible schedules, time gaps between jobs, and parental and other leaves. Yet the careers of contemporary lawyers appear to be characterized by more job changes, discontinuity, and movement between sectors of practice than is commonly assumed.

Our report moves beyond a study of work/life balance and motherhood to examine the broader issues of institutional constraints on careers of both men and women in law. We explore policy initiatives to encourage retention of legal talent in private practice and practice strategies to reduce barriers for those individuals seeking to return to private practice.

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