Women Not Gaining Ground in Big Law Firms, Says NAWL Report

In 2014, The National Association of Women Lawyers reported its 8th Annual Survey on the Retention and Promotion of Women in Law Firms. And once again, perhaps not surprisingly, the results have changed very little.

The authors of the survey, Stephanie A. Scharf, Roberta Liebenberg, and Christine Amalfe, emphasize that the reason for tracking this information is that "equitable treatment and inclusiveness for women in the profession is the better business model. Gender diversity enables law firms and clients to benefit from diverse perspectives, the ability to tap into a broader array of talent, and creates a culture that maximizes the potential of all attorneys, male and female."

Given the benefits of equal treatment and diversity in the profession, how did women in the biggest 200 law firms fare? Unfortunately, not well, and not much better than last year's dismal results.

"[A]lthough women in the surveyed law firms have made some inroads, overall the pace of progress remains unacceptably slow as women continue to confront the same barriers that have been identified in the seven prior NAWL Foundation national surveys," writes the authors.

Even more disturbing is that the majority of firms would not report data about compensation of the male and female attorneys. 33 of the firms that had participated in the past declined to participate this year.

Here some of the major takeaways from the survey:

  1. Women made up approximately 17 percent of the equity level of partnership.
    This number is not statistically significantly different from last year's report which found that women made up approximately 15 percent of the equity level of partnership. Little progress, indeed.
  2. Lateral hiring at the equity level favors men.
    The report found that 66 percent of all new male equity partners are recruited laterally, and about one-half of new female equity partners are recruited laterally.
  3. Thirty-three firms declined to participate in this survey although they had previously participated in our Survey as recently as last year.
    The authors speculate that the reason for this may be due to lean staffing and lack of resources to devote to any one particular study. However, they also offer the explanation that those firms may be less interested in the subject of advancing women lawyers or could be hesitant to share statistics that would show that their women lawyers lag behind their male counterparts.
  4. The same trends in gender composition of law firms persist.
    As in years past, the greatest percentage of women occupy the lowest positions in firms and the highest positions in firms are occupied by the lowest percentage of women. According to the survey, women make up 64 percent of staff attorneys, 47 percent of associates, 38 percent of counsel, 29 percent of non-equity partners, and 17 percent of equity partners.
  5. Out of 200 firms, only 48 firms were willing to provide data on compensation of equity partners.
    That means 152 firms of the largest 200 law firms refused to provide compensation data on their equity partners. Despite so-called commitment to advancing women, this non-statement is one that speaks volumes. For the responses that were provided, the gender pay gap for women equity partners remains significant. However, the authors believe that this pay gap can be eliminated if law firms focus on strategies for doing so. Given the unwillingness of the majority of firms to even respond to compensation disparity questions, you may not want to hold your breath on that one.
  6. The gender composition of corporate decision-making committees makes a difference in the advancement and compensation of women.
    Taking into account the small amount of data due to many firms not reporting compensation data, the authors did believe that the data they did have led to this conclusion. For the 31 firms that have two or more women on the governance committee, women equity partners earn 95 percent of what male equity partners earn. For the 17 firms where there are fewer than two women on the governance committee, women equity partners earn only 85 percent of what male equity partners earn. The authors believe this to be a critical factor in actually taking steps to reduce gender pay disparity. Having more than two women on the governance committee substantially closed the gap in pay between men and women, as opposed to having just one token woman on the committee.
  7. Men get more credit for rainmaking and client revenue.
    As an example, the survey notes that in the typical AmLaw 100 firm, women are credited for roughly 80 percent of the client billings credited to men, while in the typical Second Hundred firm, women are credited with 89 percent of the client billings credited to men.
  8. Law firm perceived obstacles to promotion of female attorneys.
    This year's survey included questioning firms on what they believed to be the biggest obstacles facing women.
    With regard to retaining women associates: 6 percent of firms report that retaining women associates is not a problem, 38 percent believe that work-life balance issues are obstacles to retention; 22 percent believe that lack of business development opportunities is the greatest obstacle; 13 percent believe that lack of mentors or women in leadership is the greatest obstacle; 11 percent believe that confusion about partnership track or the difficulty of partnership track is the greatest obstacle; and 11 percent believe that better outside job options are the greatest obstacle for retaining women associates. With regard to women reaching equity partnership, the results were slightly different. 44 percent of firms cite lack of business development, 31 percent say attrition; 10 percent say work-life balance and 11 percent believe it is fewer sponsors and mentors. Only 4 percent of firms do not perceive any obstacle to promoting women to equity partner.
  9. Female minorities account for only 2 percent of the equity partners.
    Female minorities face the most daunting challenges to advancement in law firms, say the authors. They are promoted to equity partner less often than male minorities (6 percent), and at a rate that is not consistent with the numbers of female minority attorneys entering law firms.
  10. Firms have not yet formalized their approach to choosing successors of current law firm leaders.
    70 percent of firms do not have a formal succession planning process for practice group leaders. This is a significant factor for women, the report opines, because, succession planning is a process that could potentially open up opportunities for women to be recognized for the meaningful roles they play in client service.

NAWL's Conclusions

In a released statement, one of the co-authors, Roberta Liebenberg, described the survey’s results as: "basically showing very little progress, after years of very little progress. Unfortunately, the current statistics are not significantly different from what they were when the first NAWL Survey was released in 2006."

Additionally, the authors note that some of factors that firms believe obstruct the promotion of women are entirely within the control of the law firms themselves, and are endemic to the legal profession in general: "many firms create inordinate demands for billable hours, do not provide equal access to business opportunities, do not promote women into leadership roles, and do not make transparent the criteria or process of promotion to partnership. Our data showed, for example, that a number of firms -- 12 percent --do not permit part-time lawyers to be promoted to equity partnership, an impediment that lacks a solid rationale in today’s market and which disproportionately impacts the promotion of women lawyers."

These results are indeed troubling, as they have been in years' past. The authors do provide reference to multiple publications by the ABA's Gender Equity Task Force which address strategies for closing disparity gaps, including: Closing the Gap: A Road Map for Achieving Gender Pay Equity in Law Firm Partner Compensation; Power of the Purse: How General Counsel Can Impact Pay Equity for Women Lawyers; Toolkit for Gender Equity in Partner Compensation; and What You Need to Know about Negotiating Compensation.

Here's hoping that someone at these big law firms reads them.