September 06, 2012 Practice Points

Gender Gap in Equity Partnership Improves at a Slow Pace

By Angela A. Turiano

While the vast majority of law firms offer various programs and initiatives aimed at promoting women, the actual percentage of women promoted to equity partner has increased only slightly over the last 20 years.

According to a recent survey conducted by the National Law Journal (NLJ), women represent only 15.1 percent of equity partners in the 221 largest firms in the United States. In 2011, the National Association of Women Lawyers reported that women have been fixed at 15 percent of the equity-partner ranks for the past 20 years. When nonequity partners are included in the calculation, both the figure and the rate of progress is slightly better, with women currently representing 18.8 percent of combined equity and nonequity partners in large firms—an increase from 16 percent in 2003.

Furthermore, of the top 20 large firms with the highest percentage of female partners, women make up more than 25 percent of equity partners in only five. And of these five firms, in only one do women comprise more than 40 percent of equity partners, with the percentage hovering between 26 and 29 in the remaining four.

Of note is that regional and highly specialized firms, including immigration, energy and mining, employment law, and municipal finance, dominate the top 20 firms with the highest percentage of female partners. Also, of these 20 firms, only one—the largest—made The American Lawyer’s list of the highest-grossing firms in the United States.

This being said, there are signs of increased progress going forward. Within the last 10 years, there has been a notable rise in the number of national law firms considered to be big players that have more than 20 percent women in their equity ranks. Indeed, nine years ago, there was only one Am Law 100 firm with more than 20 percent female equity partners, whereas now there is a total of six such firms on the list—Davis Polk and Wilmer, Covington & Burling; Manatt, Phelps & Phillips; Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison; Ropes & Gray; and Willkie Farr & Gallagher.

In addition to these large firms, there has also been a noted increase in female equity partnerships in profitable firms—those with profits per partner exceeding $2 million. The NLJnotes that a common attribute among these profitable firms is a one-tier partnership track. According to the NLJ study, women seem to fare better in one-tier firms, with women comprising 17.6 percent of the equity partners in single-tier firms and only 14.7 percent in those with two tiers. One reason for this distinction may be that women in two-tier systems tend to get pushed into the nonequity ranks.

In the end, the NLJ study concluded that, while upward movement for women in the equity partnership ranks to date has been slow, there are positive signs for continued improvement in the country’s largest, most profitable firms going forward.

Keywords: litigation, woman advocate, gender gap, equity partnership, partnership, promotion

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