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Published: 2012-11-19

Report - Law Firm Women's Initiatives Lack Strategy and Funding



On November 15, 2012, the National Association of Women Lawyers Foundation released a report, entitled National Survey of Women's Initiatives: The Strategy, Structure And Scope Of Women's Initiatives In Law Firms, which details the results of its first ever survey of women's initiatives in law firms.

This groundbreaking study was conducted in an attempt to find solutions to the troubling results of NAWL's Annual National Survey of Retention and Promotion of Women in Law Firms, which has been published every year since 2006. One of the most startling statistics from that survey that illustrates the stark difference in advancement between men and women is the fact that only about 15% of equity partners are women in the typical large law firm.

In this most recent report, NAWL notes that "women's initiatives" have been a way that law firms address the issues of retaining and advancing women attorneys at the firm.

Finding a scarcity of information about how these initiatives function or whether they in fact, have any impact on the advancement or retention of women attorneys, NAWL endeavored to provide greater insight into the financing, governance, structure and scope of activities of women's initiatives in the nation's 200 largest firms.

As discussed in more detail below, most firms do have women initiative programs, however, the NAWL Survey concludes that they lack strategy that is tied to the specific goals of advancement and retention, and they are woefully underfunded.

Additionally, the Survey contains specific suggestions on improving women's initiatives, so that they can truly assist in advancing and retaining women attorneys.

Areas Where Women in Law Firms Need Support for Advancement

According to results of the NAWL National Survey on Retention and Promotion of Women in Law Firms, women fare less well than men in four areas: (1) position as an equity partner, (2) credited responsibility for business, (3) high level role in law firm management, (4) level of compensation.

Some interesting statistics from the report include:

1. While nearly 1 in 2 associates is a woman, only 1 in 7 equity partners is a woman.
2. 46% of all large firms report no women rainmakers among their top 10 business generators. Another one third of firms report only one woman rainmaker in the top 10.
3. Only about 25% of firms have even one woman on their highest governing committee, and only 4% of firms place women in the role of firm-wide managing partner.
4. In 2012, women equity partners earned 89% of the compensation earned by male equity partners.

Women's Initiatives Need Specific Goals and Greater Funding

Approximately 97% of large law firms have some type of women's initiative program, according to the report. While facially a promising statistic, a deeper look reveals that it may be a case of firms wanting to appear to be committed to helping women attorneys, but not putting much behind the effort.

In surveying various women's initiatives, NAWL looked at what their actual activities are, how they are organized and funded, who participates, and how programs relate to other law firm policies and practices.

The two main take-aways from the survey results are:

1. Women's initiatives lack a specific mission or do not tie their mission to specific goals for advancement or particular types of programming.
2. Women's initiatives are woefully underfunded.

NAWL recommends that women's initiatives need to become more strategic in how they define their roles, the activities they offer and how they measure their success, and that firms must dedicate more funding to these programs.

Defining a "Mission"

75% of women's initiative programs had a written mission statement; however, NAWL found that most of them lacked identification of specific objectives that could be tracked and achieved each year.

NAWL recommends that firms review their mission statements and revise them so that they include specific strategies and activities that are linked to the advancement and retention of women attorneys.

Activities

Networking appears to be the most prominent area of focus, with 95% of firms reporting that they offered networking programs within the firm and almost 90% of firms reporting that they offered networking programs for women attorneys with women clients.

69% of firms reported that a networking event for women lawyers in the firm and clients has been among the most effective way to meet the mission of the women's initiative.

However, NAWL cautions that these events "are at best indirect ways for firms to advance their women lawyers. To the extent that the principal focus of women's initiatives is networking, they may not have as strong an impact on either retention of women lawyers or their advancement in the firm."

Other statistics on activities include:

1. Monitoring of promotion rates for women lawyers compared to men lawyers is done by 73% of firms.
2. Monitoring of work assignments for women lawyers compared to men lawyers is conducted by close to 40% of firms.
3. 60% of firms provide programming for leadership training.
4. 90% of firms report they provide a program focused on business development skills and activities.

The NAWL report indicated that the women's initiative programs did not commonly cite these programs as a way to advance their mission, noting that it is possible programs focus more on retention and networking rather than advancement. The report also opined that perhaps rainmaking programs that are only offered once or just occasionally are not seen as effective because they do not provide for long term results. NAWL recommended focusing on these areas and making them purposeful, i.e. using the monitoring results to make changes, and committing resources to a meaningful leadership and business development training program.

NAWL further recommended that a program such as “How to Become an Equity Partner,” would do well to educate women lawyers about that process, and should be given upon the first year of entry into the firm.

Eligibility and Participation of Women Attorneys

Over 90% of firms allow all women lawyers, regardless of job title or part-time status, to participate in women's initiative events.

This statistic was of particular interest because NAWL's 2012 Annual National Survey of Retention and Promotion of Women in Law Firms indicated that the staff attorney position was predominantly women. As many women take staff attorney positions or part-time positions, in times of their life when they have small children or for other reasons, it is imperative that they have the tools and resources to get back on the partner track, should they desire to.

As to participation, about 70% of firms report that more than half of their women partners participate in the women's initiative, and about 70% of firms state that more than half of eligible women associates participate in the women's initiative.

Funding for Women's Initiatives

80% of the top 100 firms had a formal budget for their women's initiative program, and those programs spent an average of $119,000 annually on activities for women's initiatives. Put in perspective, NAWL noted that this was less than the salary of one associate. Among the second hundred law firm, the annual budget was far less, at $48,000 on average.

Some additional concerning statistics on the relevance of the initiative programs to the firm as whole:

1. Only 42% of firms report that their women's initiative is part of the strategic plan of the firm.
2. 2/3 of women's initiatives report directly to the firm's Diversity or Inclusion Committee rather than the Chair of the firm.
3. Less than 60% of firms report that in one way or another, their women's initiative is evaluated by the firm.
4. Of those firms that conduct an evaluation of their women's initiative, about half report that their evaluations are done informally, not in writing.

As noted previously, the NAWL report considers present funding to be woefully inadequate, and recommends that firms commit more substantial funds to women's initiative programs.

Other Reported Policies for the Retention of Women Attorneys

The firms surveyed also reported on additional policies in place to support the retention of women attorneys:

1. 95% of large firms report that they allow flexible work schedules.
2. Part-time work schedules are also provided by the overwhelming majority of firms (97%).
3. Anti-bias training is provided by 70% of all firms.

Conclusion

In a released statement, NAWL Foundation President, and author of the report, Stephanie Scharf, stated "for the first time, law firms and women's initiatives will have objective data with which to assess their activities and make decisions going forward about how their women's initiatives can best work to advance women lawyers."

Barbara Flom, co-Chair of the NAWL National Survey Committee and Secretary of the NAWL Foundation, said in a statement released by NAWL: "An important message from the results is the need to focus more clearly on concrete strategies and techniques to enable women lawyers to advance in firms."

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.