Print This Article

Where Have the Women Attorneys Gone?
by Wendy Werner
May 2004

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, 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, 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,, 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 employment opportunities.

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.

Salary Discrepancies

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 qualifications.


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 replacement.

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