To keep great women lawyers in the game, law firms should slow down the outdated partner track

Most large law firms have what is called a “partner track.” There is a set time limit – typically 7-9 years – within which one is expected to either make partner or leave and do something else (or move into a different, less prestigious role).

People often lament the fact that, while women now outnumber men in law school, women leave the legal profession in disproportionately higher numbers than men. Given that, isn’t it time to question whether the (timed) partner track still has a place in our industry?

I spent the first decade of my career at a hard-driving litigation firm. I did not believe it was possible to parent and do my job long-term, but I was too underwater to determine the next phase of my career. So, with a baby and toddler at home, I resigned without a job offer in hand. I had followed the “how to succeed” handbook my whole life—attend a top law school, get a federal clerkship, work at a top firm—so taking a break was completely out of character. But it seemed like a good opportunity to catch my breath and figure out my next move.

Little did I know it would be so difficult to “get back in.” Despite having over a decade of experience running high-stakes cases, I found the industry viewed my time away—during which I tried to launch a restaurant recommendation app—very negatively. Recruiters told me there was no interest in someone with “my level of experience,” and the available positions seemed to offer no opportunity for career growth, which was incredibly deflating.

I am fortunate to say my story did not end there. I took a part-time position at a boutique litigation firm in 2016 and soon became a (full-time) partner. In 2019, I started my own firm, which now has twenty attorneys and three offices. But the timed partner track was nonetheless a huge obstacle for me, as it is for many others. Looking back, had I been able to decelerate or even plateau, knowing I could ramp back up in a few years and achieve my career goals, I likely would have stayed the course through those baby/toddler years.

It’s time for the legal industry to recognize what other industries already do: People do not all hit the accelerator at the same time in their careers. Rather than imposing a career-development timeline created when women were not even in the legal industry, it’s time for law firms who want more diverse leadership to bid farewell to the timed partner track and instead promote attorneys to partner when they acquire the requisite level of skill and experience.