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No ‘Appreciable Progress’ for Women in Partnership Ranks

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  • For Women in Law, Flexibility Can Help Break Barriers
  • It’s back to the future — and not in a good way for women seeking equity partnership in the nation’s 200 largest law firms.

    Women have not made “appreciable progress” since 2006 in either attaining equity partnership or increasing their pay to be on par with their male colleagues once they grasp the brass ring, according to a study by the National Association of Women Lawyers released on Tuesday.

    The results: Women represent 18 percent of equity partners, an increase of two percent since 2006, according to NAWL’s findings. Even after they’ve made it into the equity ranks, they make about 80 percent of what their male colleagues bring home. In 2006, women had made 84 percent.

    “It really should be unacceptable,” says Bobbi Liebenberg, a partner at Fine, Kaplan and Black, R.P.C, in Philadelphia, a former chair of the American Bar Association Commission on Women in the Profession.

    “We need accountability and transparency. The message has to come from the top,” Liebenberg says.

    In 2006, the NAWL had issued a challenge to fill 30 percent of equity partnership ranks in large firms, chief counsel in Fortune 500 companies and tenured law professorship positions with women. Then the group studied women’s progress toward those goals, comparing their compensation to that of men.

    “There’s still a lot of progress over the years,” said Sharon E. Jones, a member of NAWL’s Board of Directors and Chair of its Survey Committee. “The good news is really in the tenured faculty,” she added.

    Women are now 37.5 percent of tenured faculty in law schools, according to NAWL’s findings.

    Jones said there’s been significant progress in corporate law departments overall. Among Fortune 500 companies, women hold 23 percent of the top positions in the legal department. Overall, approximately 40 percent of in-house lawyers at the Fortune 500 are women, she said.

    Part of the difference comes from institutional growth.

    “Fortune 500 companies have worked on diversity and inclusion for 40 years,” said Jones. “Law firms are still learning.”

    The message will start to come from the clients who will want the change, said Liebenberg, who also observed that corporations have made more progress in diversity.

    Women are still underrepresented on the highest law firm governing committees. In a recently added question, NAWL found that in firms with three or more women on the compensation committee, women partners made more money than women in firms with less female representation, the survey found. Women also tend to get less credit for client origination, better known as rainmaking. NAWL has also found that 88 percent of responding firms reported that their top business generators were men.

    “Being a partner in a large law firm is not a team sport,” said Peter Zeughauser of Zeughauser Group. “People with male-dominant traits tend to dominate,” he said.

    Studies have shown that women are team players, a trait that doesn’t necessarily put them at an advantage in the individual competition for partnership, Zeughauser added.

    “This new survey highlights the glacial pace in leveling the playing field for women in large firms,” says Deborah L. Rhode, Director, Center on the Legal Profession and E.W. McFarland Professor of Law at Stanford University. “To make progress, we urgently need initiatives on three levels,” she says. These include strategies to address unconscious bias, gender stereotypes, women’s exclusion from informal networks of support and development, and finding ways to reduce work/family conflicts.

    Rhode’s thinking is echoed by Liebenberg. “There are a lot of implicit biases,” that hold women back, she says.

    While Jones sees the problem in firms primarily as one of “intention on the issue,” she stressed that this is not the time for hand-wringing, but for “renewed commitment.”