Are women in the legal profession dashing for the door? According to an article featured in JD Supra, out of the more than 8,000 women lawyers who left their jobs in 2021, a large percentage have not yet returned.  

Some of the often-assumed reasons for women departing the legal profession have been due to becoming new mothers, deciding to stay home with their children and more recently, because of the pandemic. 

READ ALSO: The Most Influential Women in Arizona Business for 2023

But, according to a 2022 Reuters survey of 200 women lawyers who quit their jobs, 70% of the survey participants who happened to be mothers stated that staying home with their children had little or nothing to do with their decision to leave their legal jobs. Additionally, only 20% of survey respondents flagged the pandemic as a key factor in deciding to resign. 

What then is responsible for women reconsidering a career path in law?

To help better understand why some women are taking a hiatus from law (and for how long), we turn to some of Arizona’s legal experts. 

I think being open and willing to listen to developing attorneys, and being approachable, builds trust and creates a stronger bond between women attorneys and their firms. 

Nicole M. Goodwin


In 2022, the American Bar Association (ABA) reported 1.3 million lawyers practice within the U.S., with 38% of that population being women. The report further mentioned that women’s presence in law is slowly rising — “roughly 1% per year.” But, with some 8,000 women exiting the legal industry within one year (as previously pointed out,) is the industry ramping up for a possible exodus of more women?

Nicole M. Goodwin

According to Nicole M. Goodwin, Phoenix co-managing shareholder at Greenberg Traurig, women leaving law is not so much an exodus as it is a “re-calibration.”

“[What] I have observed in Arizona over the last few years is a movement to firms where women lawyers feel they can have a long-term home, whether that’s a more suitable large firm, a boutique or hanging out a shingle,” Goodwin says. “I also see more women-owned firms now than I ever have before.”

From the perspective of Melissa Benson, senior associate attorney at Davis Miles McGuire Gardner, Arizona is a mixed bag when it comes to women remaining — or not — in the legal profession. “I have observed many women leaving the practice of law in Arizona or alternatively beginning their own firms to be more in control of their work/life balance,” she says.


Work-life balance woes rank high among women practicing law. According to a study by Am Law, more than 80% of surveyed women attorneys communicated that a job with improved work-life balance compelled them to leave their current profession. 

Melissa Benson

“We have a number of female leaders at our firm, which I think has led to a culture of understanding that everyone needs time to attend to their families and other obligations,” Benson says. “We also provide flexibility to attorneys to work reduced schedules, which I think has been instrumental to our ability to attract, retain and provide leadership roles to women.”


Second to inequity in work-life balance as a reason to leave law for women, according to the ABA, is unconscious bias.

“Even after all the strides we have made to increase female representation in the legal profession, some firms only pay lip service to equality,” Benson says. “Many firms have very few women in leadership roles and are often ‘mansplained’ to, not just by opposing counsel and judges but also those within their firms. Few firms have established women’s initiatives and even fewer provide those initiatives a true ability to impact firm policies and decisions.”

In fact, Benson explains that working for a different firm in her past, she was once told she shouldn’t wear skirts, and had opposing counsel ask her if order of protection hearings were all that the firm allowed her to do. “I have even had clients attempt to proposition me as I handle their divorce,” she says. “I have often heard female attorneys discuss whether the constant battle to overcome these issues is worth continuing to pursue a legal career.”

Adds Heidi Bayer, principal and legal recruiter for HGB Professional Recruiting Solutions, “Women want and deserve more than lip service and will, increasingly, walk away from firms that are not genuinely dedicated to empowering them.”     


Heidi Bayer

Another challenge facing women in law is the path to partnership. As reported by the ABA, “the number of women in senior leadership roles at U.S. law firms is far less than half…about 22% of all equity partners were female in 2020, according to the National Association of Women Lawyers.” 

In the past, according to Heather Boysel, managing partner at Gammage and Burnham, law firms tended to have one path that attorneys could follow to become a partner that involved billing a lot of hours and developing a significant client base. “If that path did not fit,” she says, “the attorney would ultimately not have a place long-term at that firm. Firms have been modifying this to provide long-term paths outside of the traditional partner track, but the hours demand tends to remain.”

Adds Goodwin, “Large law firms can be very traditional in several ways, but exploring non-partnership tracks for excellent attorneys within the firm is a good way to invest in people and identify ways for them to continue to provide value to our clients. Relatedly, I think being open and willing to listen to developing attorneys, and being approachable, builds trust and creates a stronger bond between women attorneys and their firms.”

Acknowledging the need for more accessible partner tracks and leadership pathways for women is something several local law firms are implementing. 

“[Davis Miles McGuire Garder’s (DMMG)] women’s initiative offers specific tools for women to advance such as career coaching and marketing strategies,” Benson says. “Additionally, our firm has clear written requirements and instructions on how to advance.”

Heather Boysel

As part of their women’s initiative, DMMG participates in a diversity writing program to recruit diverse attorneys from law school. Additionally, the firm has worked on a subsidy for childcare costs. 

At Greenberg Traurig, Goodwin says the firm regularly hosts events in an effort to create a community between lawyers and women clients who may also be in traditionally male-dominated companies. “I think it’s important to showcase our commitment to and the elevation and advancement of women to not just our own attorneys and staff, but also to our clients.”

Gammage and Burnham, as Boysel notes, places attracting and retaining women attorneys as a priority. “[It] has been part of our culture for years,” she says. “We have a number of women involved in top leadership roles, which I think has helped ensure we provide flexibility where needed to our women attorneys. We have encouraged our younger women attorneys to participate in a program called Ladder Down, which helps women attorneys develop leadership and business development skills, in addition to networking with other women attorneys.”


In addition to more flexible work-life balance, working to eliminate bias and bettering workplace culture, implementation of equal pay can lead to improved retention in law. JD Supra reported that women are paid as much as 78% less when partner level is obtained. 

According to Bayer, another key to retention of women in the legal sphere is inviting law firms to express transparency and authenticity. “Whether it’s a firm’s managing partner or another representative of the firm, [it’s important to] talk openly and honestly about the firm’s failures and successes, rather than speaking in general terms. They need to give specific examples that demonstrate the firm’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, how it has evolved and how it is empowering women to succeed.”