Retention strategies for female talent in law firms

Thursday 21 September 2023

Beth Michoma
Financial Centre Tribunal, Nairobi


Gender equality is one of the most important human rights and the role of female talent in the workplace cannot be downplayed. Having women in the workplace leads to a diverse talent pool presenting a range of capabilities, which is proven to improve workplace performance, increase revenue and generate higher rates of client satisfaction. Female talent in the workplace also contributes to the achievement of gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls as envisioned by the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 2030; in particular, SDG 5 on gender equality.

Governments and organisations are striving to ensure that there is equality in the workplace and as such are investing in hiring female talent. Law firms are no exception. While there has been a lot of emphasis on hiring female talent in law firms, the same cannot be said for retention. There is less focus on promoting female talent to leadership positions, such as partnership positions.

To determine how best to retain female talent in the legal industry, it is important to understand why women are leaving their jobs in the first place. The reasons for departure are diverse, including discriminatory practices, lack of mentorship and sponsorship opportunities, lack of opportunities to be promoted to leadership positions, sexual harassment, bullying, and conscious and unconscious bias, among others.[1] Thus, it is crucial law firms put in place strategies that cater specifically for the individual needs of female lawyers, which are outlined in this article.

Flexible working environment

The legal industry is very demanding on employees, with one of the highest rates of mental illness due to stress and burnout. Legal firms must investigate the work environment to assess whether it meets the needs of female employees and ensure adequate human resources professionals who can be physically and mentally present to tackle employees’ issues and facilitate necessary accommodations at all times.

For instance, female talent may need to be provided with specific benefits and conditions, such as a flexible working environment that accommodates for any personal caring responsibilities. This may include flexible working schedules or a work-from-home arrangement, ensuring that female employees do not have to choose between raising a family and progressing in their career.

It is necessary to embrace the notion that a committed employee can be productive no matter where they perform their work, as evidenced by the Covid-19 pandemic. Now, with high investment in remote technology, employers may offer flexibility to female talent.

Focus on career advancement

Career progression is the key to many lawyers’ satisfaction and retention. Both male and female talent must be able to see a clear and achievable path to partnership. In order to guarantee diversity at senior levels, law firms must focus on increasing the number of female partners through equal treatment and targeted initiatives such as scholarships and impactful briefs.


Mentorship opportunities ensure that employees are able to further their knowledge, gain insight from more senior employees and are able to cope with professional challenges. Mentorship programmes also demonstrate to employees that the organisation is invested in retaining them, alongside providing a sense of support and added value. A mentoring toolkit could be of great help for law firms when designing bespoke mentoring programmes for their staff.  The IBA Women Lawyers' Committee Mentorship Toolkit provides a useful basis for firms to build out a toolkit based on their specific criteria.[2]

Participation of women lawyers in the workplace

Talented employees are likely to stay in an organisation where they feel valued and respected. Law firms must ensure that they are going beyond hiring female professionals in order to meet a gender quota and instead ensuring their effective participation in the workplace. Law firms should ensure equality and equity in the allocation of briefs and that all employees’ contributions, opinions and knowledge are respected and valued.

Law firms must further ensure that female voices are amplified and that they are able to take part in decision-making processes. Female lawyers must be encouraged to speak out in meetings without being interrupted. Further, it is necessary to train team members on how to respectfully listen and respond.

Equal pay for equal work

Equal pay for equal work is sadly not yet the norm for a substantial number of organisations. Currently, on average women make 77 cents for every $1 earned by men. This pay gap is even more pronounced for women of colour.[3] It also heavily impacts mothers, who may be pushed into the informal sector due to lack of childcare options.

Lawyers are the custodian of the law, so one might be surprised to know that the sector is among the industries perpetuating pay inequality. According to research on pay analytics by The Next 100 Years and Gapsquare, the gender pay gap in the legal sector is 25.4 per cent.[4] Male partners also receive higher remuneration (basic pay and bonuses from brief allocation) compared to female partners.

Law firms should guarantee that female employees are being paid the same as their male counterparts, create policies regarding equal pay and implement a culture of transparency concerning renumeration.

Paid maternity leave

Women are often faced with the dilemma of either starting a family or investing in their careers. Along with pregnancy comes a fear of losing their jobs or being passed over for promotion opportunities as they take time off to nurse children.

Paid maternity leave is a human right that must not be ignored by any country or organisation, yet law firms are among the highest offenders in relation to discriminatory practices concerning maternity protection.

While some law firms are supportive and offer maternity leave that goes beyond the 14 weeks provided for by the International Labour Organization (ILO) through the Maternity Protection Convention 2000 No 183 and/or by respective country statutes, several law firms opt to dismiss pregnant women. Firms also tend not to have policies on leave, especially in relation to miscarriage or stillbirth in the third trimester.

Paid paternity leave

Childcare should not be seen as the sole responsibility of women. According to a 2022 ILO report, in 2021 ‘115 out of 185 countries surveyed […] offer a right to paternity leave, with 33 new countries doing so in the preceding ten years’.[5]

Paternity leave ensures that fathers have the option take on childcare duties in order to allow the mother to return to work. However, while the right to paternity leave is increasing, there are some major discrepancies in leave periods. For instance, in Kenya, maternity leave is for a minimum of 90 calendar days with full pay, while paternity leave is just two weeks. This gap is quite detrimental to workplace equity, as in many cases it still forces female employees to choose between work and childcare.


Retaining female talent is key to ensuring diversity in law firms. Barriers to retention must be addressed through deliberate efforts including firm policies, guidelines and initiatives that empower women to remain at work.


[1] Leopard Solutions, Women Leaving the Law (2022) www.leopardsolutions.com/wp-content/uploads/Women-Leaving-Law-Final.pdf accessed 20 August 2023.

[2] IBA Women Lawyer’s Committee Mentorship Toolkit (September 2022) www.ibanet.org/unit/Section+on+Public+and+Professional+Interest/committee/Women+Lawyers%27+Committee/3117 accessed 20 August 2023.

[3] United Nations, ‘International Equal Pay Day 18 September’ www.un.org/en/observances/equal-pay-day accessed 20 August 2023.

[4] Gapsquare, Closing the gender pay gap in the legal profession (thenext100years.co.uk, June 2022) https://next100years.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/1317_Next_100_Years_GSQ_Report_20_6_22_V3.pdf accessed 20 August 2023.

[5] Laura Addati, Umberto Cattaneo and Emanuela Pozzan, Care at Work: Investing in care leave and services for a more gender equal world of work (ILO, March 2022) www.ilo.org/global/topics/care-economy/WCMS_838653/lang--en/index.htm accessed 20 August 2023.