On Friday, March 14th, Jenner & Block LLP confirmed that trial lawyer Susan Levy has been named as the firm’s new managing partner.1 She is the first female managing partner in the top Chicago firm’s 94-year history.2 Unfortunately, however, the promotion of women to the highest leadership positions in private firms is still far too uncommon. In fact, fewer than 10 percent of managing partners in firms nationwide are women,3 and only 15 percent of the seats on a firm’s highest governing committee are filled by women.4 What’s more, 15 percent of firms report no women at all on their highest committee.5
These startling findings are among many other results from the second annual National Survey of the Status of Women in Law Firms (“Survey”), conducted by the National Association of Women Lawyers (“NAWL”). Released in November 2007, the NAWL Report compiles results from the Survey, the only national study that annually tracks the professional progress of women in law firms by providing a comparative view of the careers of men and women lawyers at all levels of private practice.6 NAWL initiated the Survey due to concern over the relatively slow progress of women lawyers into the upper levels of private practice.7 With the results from the Survey, NAWL aims to provide reliable benchmarks about the status of women in private firms and the factors that impede or advance the retention and promotion of women lawyers in private practice.8
For almost three decades, women have entered the legal profession at the same rate as men.9 As associates, compensation and billable hour requirements remain fairly equal as between men and women because they are measured in essentially a “lock-step” fashion by most large firms.10 Beyond the associate level, however, the Survey findings show that women advance into the upper reaches of law firms with only a fraction of the success enjoyed by their male colleagues.11 In an attempt to understand this disparity between women and men at the higher levels of private firms, the NAWL Report divides the Survey results into four critical areas.
First, the Survey addresses the varying positions women occupy in law firms. NAWL asked firms to identify the breakdown of lawyer positions by gender for junior and senior associates, of-counsels, non-equity partners and equity partners.12 The findings explain that representation of women decreases with each level of promotion.13 Women go from 47 percent of associates to 30 percent of of-counsels to 26 percent of non-equity partners to 16 percent of equity partners.14 Where one out of two law firm associates is a woman, only one out of six equity partners is a woman.15
The NAWL Survey Committee observes that this disparity between the representation of women at associate levels and the representation of women at equity ranks has serious implications for whether and how firms can achieve gender balance.16 With a low percentage of women in leadership positions in the firm, there are fewer women role models for new associates, fewer opportunities for associates to work with senior women lawyers, and fewer women to mentor the junior lawyers.17 Male and female associates alike are affected by this disparity.18 The NAWL Survey Committee also expresses concern that these numbers create a “self-reinforcing culture of negative expectations that women will not proceed in large numbers into senior positions.”19
Second, the Survey focuses on women in law firm leadership positions, such as governing committee member and managing partner. Firms report an average of 11-12 members on their highest committee.20 The Survey results show that women comprise roughly 15 percent of the membership of the highest governing committee.21 Interestingly enough, the ratio for membership in governing committees is only slightly lower than the ratio of female equity partners (16 percent).22 Shockingly though, one in seven of the nation’s 200 largest firms report no women members on their highest governing committees.23
The results paint a similar picture for the position of managing partner. With 97 percent of firms reporting this position, the results show that women make up only 8 percent of all managing partners – a much lower ratio than the number of female equity partners.24 The NAWL Survey Committee concludes that these statistics prove that women are not advancing to the highest levels of firm management in numbers equal to their representation at the equity partnership level, let alone their representation at the associate levels.25
Third, the Survey evaluates the continuing compensation gap between female and male attorneys. The results reveal that a male partner is the highest compensated partner in 90 percent of the firms who responded to the Survey.26 While associate compensation is roughly equal between men and women, women earn less on average with each step up the partnership ladder.27 Male of-counsels earn roughly $20,000 more than females, male non-equity partners earn roughly $27,000 more than females, and male equity partners earn almost $90,000 more than female equity partners.28
The results show that the disparity at the equity partner level may be attributed to the substantially greater number of senior male equity partners compared to senior women equity partners.29 The gaps at the non-equity and of-counsel levels indicate, however, that women are generally under-compensated for their contributions to their firms.30 The Survey Committee suggests a possible reason for the disparity may be that women lawyers are not given as many choice assignments, introductions to key firm clients, or other opportunities for growth.31
NAWL anticipates that women partners will continue to struggle to gain income parity with men.32As a result, the Survey focuses for the first time this year on the impact of, and the lack of, firm policies and practices aimed at providing the proper context and support for women lawyers.33 Three prominent theories for the lack of advancement and disparate compensation of women in private practice are discussed: 1) excessive billing-hour requirements, 2) lack of meaningful part-time work policies, and 3) poor attention to helping women develop the business skills and business opportunities that impact career success.34 With this Survey, NAWL also asked questions aimed at determining the extent to which firms are implementing new policies in these areas to enhance the retention and promotion of women lawyers.35
The Survey examines whether billing-hour requirements have any impact on the advancement of women attorneys within the private firm. Many believe that the lawyer’s ever-increasing business hours have a disproportionate impact on women attorneys because of the tensions between time required for work and family responsibilities.36 The results illustrate, however, that women working with billing-hour requirements in place have no greater or lesser chance of progressing into senior positions.37 In fact, firms with higher billing-hour requirements have the same percentage of women equity partners as firms with lower or no billing-hour requirements.38 The Survey proves that satisfying the billing-hour requirements of the firm may be a prerequisite to promotion, but it has no apparent effect on the woman lawyer’s odds of promotion to equity partner within that firm.39
The Survey also analyzes the existence of part-time schedules within private firms and the effect that those arrangements have on women’s advancement within the firm. The Survey defines “part-time” as less than 80 percent of full-time practice.40 The results demonstrate that women are about six times more likely than men to work part-time.41 Essentially, one in 50 male lawyers is working part-time, while one in eight women lawyers is working part-time.42
Another interesting pattern emerged: women work part-time schedules early on in their careers, while men generally work part-time schedules after spending many years in practice, often as part of a transition to retirement.43 The Survey results show that most women opting for a part-time schedule are still in their child-bearing/child-rearing years.44 Furthermore, the Survey found that the striking drop off of women lawyers beyond 10 years in practice suggests that women face “substantial obstacles” when attempting to return to full-time practice during their potentially most experienced years.45 NAWL contends that firms must implement policies that define part-time work as one temporary stage in the context of a full legal career in order to eliminate this “dead-end rut” that disproportionately affects junior women attorneys.46
Finally, the Survey closes by exploring the presence and function of women’s initiatives, which include professional development activities, social networking events, and formal mentoring programs. Since this is the first year that the Survey has examined this particular subject, the amount of data is fairly small, but the results are striking. Ninety-five percent of firms reported sponsoring a women’s initiative.47 The NAWL Survey Committee found that the presence of social networking events can be positively correlated to higher per-partner profitability.48 Essentially, the results confirm that there is no drawback for firms, or for women lawyers, to sponsoring or participating in women’s initiatives.49
NAWL maintains that individual lawyers alone cannot overcome these structural barriers.50 Rather, law firms must adapt their policies and programs to draw women into long-term careers in private practice.51 Without an overhaul of traditionally-accepted firm policies that favor men, firms will continue to be “overwhelmingly male enclaves” without meaningful gender diversity.52 It is NAWL’s hope that private law firms “implement meaningful, concrete steps that proactively increase the number of women lawyers at the more senior levels.”53 While the numbers show that some progress has been made over the years, women are still grossly underrepresented at the upper levels of private firms.
The NAWL Survey was sent in late winter 2007 to the 200 largest firms in the United States as reported by American Lawyer.54 NAWL chose to focus on larger firms because they compose an easily defined sample on a national basis and because their results could be viewed as benchmarks for the larger profession.55 A total of 112 firms responded.56 Responding firms were significantly larger than non-responding firms in terms of gross revenue, net operating income, and number of lawyers.57Responding and non-responding firms had similar revenue per lawyer, profits per equity partner, gross revenue growth rates, and regional distribution.58 As part of the Survey, NAWL committed not to publish individual law firm data.59
Founded in 1899, NAWL is an independent organization of both men and women lawyers committed to supporting and advancing the interests of women in and under the law.60 NAWL is affiliated with the American Bar Association and is based in Chicago, Illinois. For additional information about NAWL, please visit its Web site at <http://www.abanet.org/nawl/>. The Survey is available online at <http://www.abanet.org/nawl/docs/FINAL_survey_report_11-14-07.pdf>.