May 17, 2019 Article

It Takes Us All to Tango: Seeking Gender Parity in a Law Firm Environment

What law firms can do to foster the promotion of women and what women can do to promote themselves.

By Dawn Mertineit and Katherine E. Perrelli

It is no secret that, like many other professions, the legal profession has been male-dominated for decades. Even some major law firms did not promote women to partnership until the 1970s or later. While times have changed, the fact remains that the vast majority of top law firms have far more male partners than female partners. In fact, an AmLaw 100 firm recently landed in hot water upon announcing its crop of 12 new partners: 11 men and only 1 woman (and, notably, all white). The negative press in the wake of the announcement even included an article in the New York Times highlighting the backlash—including a group of general counsels and chief legal officers who published an open letter expressing their concern about the lack of diversity in partnership ranks among top firms.

The slow trickle of progress has been observed by the National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL), which grimly noted in its Report of the 2018 NAWL Survey on Retention and Promotion of Women in Law Firms that “in the 11 years that NAWL has tracked the data, there has been relatively little progress made in the representation of women” in partnership and leadership roles. This has led NAWL to challenge firms to increase the percentage of women equity partners to one-third of all incoming equity partners by 2020—hardly an aggressive goal when considering that half of enrolled law students are women (and nearly half of all law firm associates are women), but mindful of the reality that only 20 percent of equity partners in 2018 were women. 

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