Presumed equal: What America’s top women lawyers really think about their firms
During our third year of law school, we stumbled upon a dated edition of a guide entitled Presumed Equal, which summarized women’s experiences at large law firms. Recognizing its wide-ranging value, we decided to create a third edition. Less than one year later, the project has been completed, and the 2006 edition of Presumed Equal has been published. The project involved soliciting anonymous responses from nearly 4,000 female attorneys from over 150 offices in the United States, which we compiled into firm-specific reports. In order to develop an initial list of firms, we used various sources, including the American Lawyer, Vault Guide, and NALP Directory, as well as word of mouth from our classmates. An additional prerequisite required that at least one of the offices of the firm had more than 40 female attorneys. If more than one office had over 40 women, we included any office of the firm that met this criteria. The study used an online survey that was sent by e-mail to all women in the firms we identified.
The project has been conducted twice previously, resulting in the first and second editions ofPresumed Equal, which were published in 1995 and 1998 by fellow Harvard Law alumnae Suzanne Nossel and Elizabeth Westfall. The first two editions were tremendously successful, and the publication of the second edition motivated many firms, such as Chicago’s Winston & Strawn, to establish women’s initiatives.
To our knowledge, this is the largest, most comprehensive survey of women at the top law firms in the United States. We contacted over 16,000 female attorneys and were thrilled to receive nearly 4,000 responses, which represents a 300 percent increase in responses over the second edition. Our data covers 150 offices of 105 of the most prestigious law firms in the United States. By allowing the attorneys to remain anonymous, we garnered responses that ranged from being particularly enthusiastic to specifically critical. While no survey tool can elicit responses that exactly illustrate the entire situation in a given environment, we believe the breadth of our sample and candor of the respondents provides meaningful, albeit necessarily incomplete and imperfect, information.
The impetus behind this project was the desire to disseminate candid and accurate information about what it is like to be a woman at a top law firm in the United States. Although women’s experiences at law firms cannot be simplified into a singular experience, female law students have an abundance of questions about what it is like to practice in a law firm. They want to know if they will be treated on par with their male colleagues, measured by such things as receiving comparable assignments, advancement prospects and mentorship opportunities. They want to know the feasibility of raising children while climbing the partnership ladder. They want to know whether working part-time, because of familial demands or the desire to pursue other interests, is a real option for those wishing to preserve rewarding professional careers. While these are certainly not the only issues that concern female law students—nor are they issues that concern only female law students—there is a paucity of information available to those students especially interested in learning more about these aspects of life at a law firm. Moreover, asking these questions presents a challenge to students who must balance an interest in issues such as part-time schedules, with a desire to appear hard-working and motivated.
Just as importantly, law firms concerned with attracting and retaining qualified female candidates often have a difficult time self-assessing and obtaining frank evaluations from their employees. This project provides a wealth of information to firms looking for ways to improve the quality of their internal information and diversity initiatives. Not only can firms heed the praise and criticisms leveled at them by their own attorneys, but they should learn from the successes of other firms and seek to implement strategies that have proven successful.
Presumed Equal does not imply that female law students and attorneys will or should select a law firm based solely on gender-related concerns. When choosing a firm, attorneys must consider a wide range of factors, such as a firm’s practice areas, clientele, mentorship opportunities, pro bono commitments, and the quality of assignments anticipated. Nevertheless, after reading the responses of nearly 4,000 women, it is clear that long-term professional satisfaction is not based solely on the quality of an attorney’s, and particularly a female attorney’s, work. At present, the reluctance of a male-dominated partnership to mentor female attorneys, the persistence of gender biases regarding women’s roles, and the tacit penalties that women endure for taking advantage of maternity leave, to name only a few dynamics at play, still profoundly shape women’s experiences within the legal profession.
Frequently, we are asked how the profession has changed since the publication of the last edition ofPresumed Equal in 1998. The answer is a little surprising: not much. While many firms have instituted diversity and women’s initiatives since the last publication, many respondents complained that these efforts were merely window dressing and that the number of female and diverse attorneys still remains low. In fact, even though men and women have graduated from law school at nearly the same rate for two decades, women still make up only 17 percent of partners at law firms, illustrating that the lack of female partners is no longer a pipeline issue.
Additionally, nearly every respondent highlighted the fact that women are more likely to leave firms before partnership decisions are made, and, indeed, the attrition rate for women is still significantly higher than for men. Some respondents cited personal choices as the reason for higher attrition, while others pointed to the “boys’ club” atmosphere which tends to “push” women out. Clearly, few, if any, law firms have implemented policies that effectively combat the challenges presented by higher levels of female attrition.
We believe that projects like Presumed Equal can instigate positive change. In writing the book, our goal was to provide a resource for female law students to distinguish between firms and an opportunity for firms to learn about their own attorneys and the policies of their competitors. We hope that this book serves as a source of enthusiasm and empowerment for our readers and sparks increased, informed discussions of women’s issues. After all, most of the concerns that prompted Suzanne and Elizabeth to write Presumed Equal are just as relevant today as they were 10 years ago.