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Published: 2012-10-26

NAWL Reports Troubling Statistics on the Progress of Women Attorneys



The National Association of Women Lawyers reported its 7th Annual Survey on the Retention and Promotion of Women in Law Firms. And yet again, the results are not comforting.

The report offered some good news: "although median equity partner compensation is down across the board, women's compensation has declined less than men's." So that is something, right? Hmm. In this economic climate, possibly. In the grand scheme of achieving equality and realizing that it is 2012 and we are still talking about pay equity, perhaps not so much.

Moreover, the bad news was indeed depressing. "Along every dimension of comparison, and in spite of law firms' expressed support for gender equity, women have not made significant progress either economically or in reaching leadership roles during the seven years the Survey has measured the impact of gender in law firms," reports Barbara Flom, the author of the Survey.

Here some of the highlights of the Survey:

1. Women Attorneys Exit Law Firms Disproportionately More than their Male Peers

In evaluating the nation's largest 200 firms, the NAWL found that the typical firm is now a two-tier partnership with many different categories of lawyer in a leveraged structure: 151 equity partners (barely 15% women), 91 non-equity partners (26% women), 54 counsel (35% women), 188 associates (46% women), and 11 staff attorneys (70% women).

From these statistics, NAWL concluded that women were leaving law firms in disproportionately higher numbers than men and the percentages of women equity partners and women associates in the typical firm have declined slightly during the past two years. The only category where women are a majority is in the category of staff attorney.

2. Discrepancies Start at the Associate Level

Women constituted 47% of graduating lawyers in 2011 but only about 45% of the first- and second-year associates in AmLaw 200 firms.

Although the typical overall compensation for women associates is 99% of what men earn, when it comes to bonuses, women constitute nearly 45% of the associate pool, yet they receive only 40% of the bonuses.

Women associates are logging somewhat higher nonbillable hours than their male counterparts but their billable hours were an average 52 hours less than their male peers.

NAWL's recommendation: Because it is unclear what the cause is behind the difference in billable versus nonbillable hours, NAWL recommends that firms track billable and nonbillable hours, and also implement review policies to ensure that billable work is being allocated in a way that is fair to both men and women.

3. Staff Attorney Positions are Predominately Women

These positions are non-partner track, and the only category where women constituted a majority.

Of note, NAWL reported that anecdotally, some women staff attorneys were pleased with this position that enabled them to achieve a work-life balance not available on the partner track. However, it also noted a concern that the standards and expectations for the partner track should evolve to be more accepting of all women's lives and goals and not be restricted to those who accept the 24/7 on-demand mentality. This concern applies to both men and women.

NAWL's recommendation: Encourage firms to have systems of advancement that builds in flexibility and accommodates the needs of women (and men) lawyers at various phases of their careers.

4. Counsel Positions: Women Take These Positions Mid-Career and Rarely Return to Partnership Track

In these counsel positions at law firms, most of the men took them at a time when they might be expected to be considering retirement, while most women were in a much earlier stage of practice.

NAWL's concern: "With women continuing to make up only a dismal 15% of equity partners, it is an unavoidable conclusion that women who go off the prescribed partnership path, even for a few years, seldom if ever make it back."

5. Women Non-Equity Partners Making Progress in Compensation

In NAWL's 2006 Survey, women non-equity partners made approximately 84% what their male counterparts earned. This year, women non-equity partners made 98% what men non-equity partners made, showing substantial improvement in this area.

Some glimmer of equality? Unfortunately, it is in the category where the position has very little power within the firm structure.

6. Women as Equity Partners: 15% Figure Remains Unchanged

NAWL reports that women make up barely 15% of equity partners in a typical firm and this figure has not changed in the 7 years that they have conducted this Survey. Greater success was achieved at one-tier firms, where the percentage of women equity partners increased to 21%. Unfortunately, one-tier firms have been on the decline, and are becoming more of a rarity, according to the report.

In mixed tier firms, women constitute 37% of fixed-income equity partners. However, the NAWL report raises concern about this category as fixed-income equity partners are not compensated like full equity partners, they cannot vote as equity partners, and possess little or no governance authority.

7. Women Attorneys Lack Power Position in Firms

Women constitute only 20% of the members of a typical firm's highest governing committee, and a woman is a firm-wide managing partner in only 4% of firms, reads the report.

NAWL's concerns: First, women are not a part of the conversation that is shaping the firm's culture. If women's voices are not heard in the shaping of the firm's cultures and policies, it is not surprising that women would leave for a more supportive professional environment. Second, the scarcity of visible, powerful women sends a message to those starting out: "You do not belong here."

8. Women Attorney's Compensation Lags Behind Men's

Women equity partners made 89% of what male equity partners made. This is an improvement over last years' numbers, which was 86%, says the report.

Further, while there were some minor differences in men and women's billable and nonbillable hours, the report concluded that the numbers were sufficiently close that they do not explain the difference in relative compensation.

9. Women Attorneys Credited with Smaller Book of Business

Women equity partners receive only 75% of the amount credited to their male colleagues, reports NAWL.

NAWL's Conclusions

The report concluded that the gap between the median compensation of male and female equity partners cannot be explained by differences in billable hours, total hours, or books of business.

Of concern as well is how factors are used and weighted in determining compensation, and how compensation is determined is not entirely clear based on the information gathered. "Our concern is that, in the absence of transparency, there is the potential for unintended bias to affect the process in ways that disadvantage women lawyers disproportionately."

So what's the takeaway here? Other than the terribly disheartening figures on the state of women in the legal profession?

Perhaps some of these figures should be flipped on their head. While not discounting the undercurrent of bias still present in the legal profession and the clearly unequal pay structure for women equity partners, perhaps some of these figures indicate something more. Perhaps some women are deciding that the stress of big firm partnership is not worth the trade off, that they want a life beyond the walls of the law firm office, and they are finding a way to do it. Perhaps it is the legal profession that needs to evolve to follow the trend that women are setting. Perhaps.

Anne O'Donnell is a recovering litigator who is now currently a Senior Writer for legal professional content at Findlaw.com. She practiced for 10 years in civil litigation in San Francisco.