For many years, the number of women making partner
at large law firms has lagged behind their male counterparts.
According to a study by the National Association for
Law Placement, women comprise 16.8 percent of large
law-firm partners. For comparison purposes, the percentage
of women partners in 1993 was 12.27%.
Firms attributed the low percentage to a "pipeline"
issue, reasoning that the number will increase as more
females enter the profession. This however does not
seem to a reasonable explanation based upon female enrollment
and graduation from law school. In 1991, 43% of students
starting law school were women, leading to a graduation
rate in 1994 of 42.6%.
We would anticipate then, that approximately 40% of
lawyers making partner in large firms this year would
be women. But according to Cynthia Thomas Calvert, who
is keeping track of this year’s partnership announcements
on her Project
for Attorney Retention Weblog, this has not proven
to be true. Calvert is co-chair of the project which
is part of The Program on WorkLife Law, a research and
advocacy center based at American University, Washington
College of Law, www.worklifelaw.org.
It was founded as the Program on Gender, Work &
Family in 1998 and is supported by research and program
development grants, university funding, and private
donations. The Program changed its name to the Program
on WorkLife Law in October 2003 to better reflect its
increasing emphasis on identifying barriers and practical
solutions to issues in the workplace.
Cynthia Thomas Calvert has also worked on issues relating
to attorney retention. The outcome of these studies
can be found at www.pardc.org,
funded by the Alfred E. Sloan Foundation and supported
by the Women Lawyers Association of D.C. Although the
data is based upon information gathered from law firms
and corporations in the Washington D.C. area, the information
is relevant to all practice jurisdictions.
Calvert’s weblog is gathering information about
partnership decisions at law firms throughout the country
and she has found some of the numbers surprising. At
Los Angeles-based O’Melveny & Myers, for instance,
none of the twelve new partners are women, although
half of last year’s partners were women. Atlanta-based
King & Spalding elevated one woman and nine men.
Gibson Dunn made eight new partners, one of whom is
a female. White & Case made eleven new partners
in the U.S., nine of whom are male. Jones Day made twenty-one
partners in the U.S., four of whom are female. Mayer
Brown promoted twenty-six new partners, seven female.
The fact is that for the last twenty years, starting
in 1984, graduation rates of women in law school have
risen from 39% to 49%. But the percentages of women
reaching the rank of partner has not been replicated
at even the lower percentage. The “pipeline”
explanation can simply no longer be argued based upon
the percentage of women in law school.
This information provides but a small slice of the
data pie about women in the legal profession. There
are not that many attorneys who practice in firms that
yield this data—primarily those with more than
100 lawyers. In Missouri, as well as most other states,
the vast majority of attorneys who practice in the private
sector are in firms of fewer than ten attorneys. But,
according to the National Association for Law Placement’s
Annual Employment Survey, women law graduates migrate
to small law firms in fewer numbers than their male
counterparts, indicating a likelihood that even fewer
of them will become partners in that arena than men.
According to research from the National Association
for Law Placement, www.nalp.org/nalpresarch,
women from the Class of 2002 were slightly less likely
to enter private practice and more likely to accept
positions in government or public interest organizations
or as judicial clerks. Although this pattern is similar
to those of prior years, the differences in how many
women take jobs in private practice, government, and
clerkships have narrowed. Women, however, remain about
twice as likely as men to take public interest jobs,
although these jobs represent less than 10% of legal
It is also the case that, according to this same study,
women are somewhat more likely to take jobs in firms
of more than 100 attorneys, and somewhat less likely
to take jobs in small firms of 2-10 attorneys. The percentage
of women going into private practice and taking jobs
in firms of more than 100 attorneys has been two to
four percentage points higher than the rate for men,
with the largest differentials in 1988 and 2000, and
the smallest differential in 2002.
In addition to fewer women making partner, women attorneys
continue to make less money than their male counterparts.
A recent salary survey conducted by the Missouri Bar
Association showed significant discrepancies between
male and female attorney salaries with equal levels
of experience. This is the first year that the bar association
survey has shown salary figures by gender. Although
the association indicates that this is not a scientific
survey, the numbers do indicate a need to gather more
information from a broader sample of attorneys in the
state in order to better inform attorneys about how
pay may differ by gender.
The ABA Commission on Women also found that men earn
twenty percent higher salaries than women, and are twice
as likely to obtain a partnership than women with similar
What are the implications for the legal profession
from this information? For one, it should be a wake
up call to employers regarding hiring and promotion.
If an employer is hiring 40% - 45% women, and only 15%
of those remaining at the time of partner decisions
will be made partner, the firm has invested a great
deal of time, effort, and money in a process that has
not ultimately been successful. According to a study
by the National Association for Law Placement, called
“Keeping the Keepers,” we already know that
approximately 50% of attorneys leave large law firms
within the first three years of employment, and that
they make that decision within the first year of work.
But the cost to a firm of losing employees after three
years is even more significant. Client relationships,
skill sets, and efficiencies grow significantly after
the first three years of practice. If an employer is
unable to keep employees after four or five years, the
financial and relationship costs continue to grow.
Unlike easy to track recruitment costs, attrition costs
are more difficult to quantify. According to an article
by Linda Bray Chanow, "...when the accounting firm
Deloitte & Touche realized its women professionals
were not advancing at the expected rate, the accounting
firm performed an internal study. The study found that
when each professional quit, the firm lost approximately
150% of the person’s annual salary. The similarities
between the structure of accounting firms and law firms
suggest that the analysis may also be applicable in
the context of law firms..." This cost would have
to be figured on top of the recruitment cost for a possible
Sometimes decisions have a more costly result. In a
recent case in Great Britain, two former Sinclair Roche
& Temperley female junior partners who sued after
being turned down for equity partnership were awarded
approximately $13 million dollars. This case could be
seen as extreme since only one woman had become an equity
partner in the history of the firm starting in 1934.
The firm plans to appeal but if firm partnership selection
criteria cannot be quantified, firms could be making
themselves vulnerable to scrutiny.
According to an article published in the New York
Lawyer in August of 2003, The U.S. Equal Opportunity
Commission proposed a series of steps that a New York
firm must undertake after its determination that the
firm had discriminated against female associates. One
of the steps stated, “Respondent will codify its
two-tiered attorney track stating 1) qualification necessary
for hire into the partnership track, 2) the performance
requirements to be met for promotion onto the partnership
track after hire, and 3) the pay structure for the two
different tracks. This codification will be distributed
to all current and future attorneys.”
With 49% of the current student enrollment in law school
being female, women students are beginning to take notice
of those firms whose female partnership ranks are growing
and those that are not. In the war for talent, firms
want to be able to attract and retain the best candidates.
It is clear that one of the significant factors that
impacts attrition of female attorneys who are, or plan
to be mothers and to some extent their male counterparts,
are the growing expectations regarding billable hours.
When salaries spiked in 1999 and firms throughout the
country responded, billable hour requirements increased
as well. According to the article by Linda Bray Chanow,
in recent statistics cited by American University law
Professor Joan Williams, only 7% of mothers aged 25-49
with children under the age of 18 work more than 49
hours per week outside of the home. Because most full
time law firm jobs require a commitment great than 49
hours a week in order to meet billable hour requirements,
firms that do not allow for reduced schedules are unlikely
to retain attorneys whose other commitments require
them to work fewer hours. Although more firms today
publicize reduced hour policies, actual use of policies
is fairly limited.
A greater percentage of college graduates each year
are women. According to the College Board, women became
the majority of SAT takers in the 1970’s and now
represent 54% of those taking the exam. The enrollment
of women in law school is likely to more closely track
college enrollment. Employers who are planning for the
future might want to think affirmatively about how they
will accommodate growing numbers of women in their practices.
If you want to hire and retain the best and the brightest,
it only makes sense.
Wendy L. Werner is the owner and principal
of Werner Associates, a legal consulting and career
coaching organization. She can be reached at WernerWL@yahoo.com.