June 2008Volume 13Number 4PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)

National Association of Women Lawyers: 2007 Survey of the Status of Women in Law firms

On February 19th, the ISBA Women and the Law Committee co-sponsored a National Conference of Women’s Bar Associations’ (“NCWBA”) program titled “A Closer Look: NAWL’s 2007 Survey of Women in Law Firms.” More than 400 women attorneys from around the country participated in the NCWBA Web seminar. The program speakers focused on the results of the 2007 NAWL survey, as well as how law firms and women’s bar associations can and should respond to these findings.

According to NAWL, the impetus of the survey is the relatively slow progress of women lawyers in the upper-reaches of private practice. For almost three decades, women have graduated from law schools and begun their legal careers in private practice at about the same rate as men. The survey findings show that women advance into the upper levels of law firms with only a fraction of the success enjoyed by their male classmates.

The NAWL survey is 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, including senior roles as equity partners and law firm leaders, and compensation. By compiling objective data in an annual survey sampling the nation’s largest 200 law firms, NAWL aims to provide: (a) an empirical picture of how women forge long-term careers in firms and what progress is being made in reaching the highest positions in firms, (b) benchmarking statistics for firms to use in measuring their progress, and (c) over a multi-year period, longitudinal data for cause-and-effect analyses of the factors that enhance or impede the progress of women in firms.

The executive summary of the NAWL report provides a brief review of the 2007 findings as follows:

• Women do not enter the room in large numbers where law firm partners meet. Women lawyers account for only about 16 percent of equity partners—those lawyers who own shares in their firms and occupy the most prestigious, powerful and best paid-positions. Put another way, for every 100 equity partners in the average large firm, 84 of them are men.

• There are decided differences in promotion to equity partner depending on when women graduated from law school. In the most senior partner classes, those graduating before 1980 when many fewer women were admitted to law school, fewer than 10 percent of equity partners are women. In classes graduating between 10 to 25 years ago, when classes were 40 percent to 50 percent female, the percentage of women equity partners increases to about 20 percent—higher but still not close to the proportion of female lawyers in those classes who started their careers as law firm associates. While these findings suggest that almost three decades of consistently high numbers of women graduates has been a factor for advancing women into senior positions, the high number alone has not been enough to achieve the rates of law firm advancement that are enjoyed by men.

• Women have yet to break into leadership ranks of large firms in meaningful numbers. A small minority of managing partners are women, fewer than 10 percent. Women fill a minority of the seats on the highest governing committee of large firms. On average, only about 15 percent of the seats on a firm’s governing committee are filled by women. A remarkable 15 percent of firms report no women at all on their highest committee.

• There is a continuing income disparity between men and women lawyers at each rung of the partnership ladder. While 2007 compensation for associates is roughly parallel between men and women lawyers, in the average firm 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.

• Women working in firms with higher hours requirements have no better chance of progressing into senior partner positions than women working in firms with lower hours or no hours requirements. Hard work does, however, have a financial pay-off, especially for men. At firms that either have no hours requirement or are below the median on required hours for partners, male equity partners earn, respectively, $73,000 and $51,000 more than female equity partners. At firms with high hours requirements, men who are equity partners earn a whopping $140,000 more than women in the same position.

• Women lawyers work part-time in much greater numbers than their male counterparts. In the average firm, one in 50 male lawyers is working part-time, while close to one in eight female lawyers is working part-time. The timing of part-time work also differs by gender; for the most part, women tend to work part-time early in their careers, while men work part-time only after spending many years in practice.

• The vast majority of firms—93 percent—have implemented women’s initiatives to assist women in developing the skills and connections needed to sustain a long-term legal career. It has become the rare large firm that does not have some type of program for developing careers for their women lawyers.

Overall, the 2007 findings are not encouraging as to the progress of women attorneys in private practices. The program also addressed the positive impact of efforts such as the Chicago Bar Association’s Call to Action in increasing and promoting the advancement of women lawyers in firm leadership. The panelists also agreed that the expansion of women’s initiatives within law firms has proved beneficial in retaining women attorneys and providing greater leadership opportunities. The panelists noted that women’s bar associations and related organizations play a critical role in raising awareness of these significant concerns and working to promote positive change within the law firms and the legal profession overall.

The 2007 NAWL report is available online at <www.abanet.org/nawl>. An audio recording of the complete February 19th NCWBA Web seminar is available at <www.foley.com>.


E. Lynn Grayson is a Partner at Jenner & Block, LLP in Chicago and the Vice-Chair of the ISBA Women and the Law Committee.

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