November 13, 2012 Practice Points

Survey Paints Bleak Picture of Women in Large Law Firms

By Joanne Geha Swanson

A recent survey of the nation's 200 largest law firms has yielded disappointing results on the career path of women lawyers. The Seventh Annual NAWL National Survey on Retention and Promotion of Women in Law Firms, conducted by the National Association of Women Lawyers and the NAWL Foundation, shows that women have not penetrated the highest levels of large- law-firm practice and leadership in any significant numbers. Further, the survey shows that the proportion of women entering into practice with large firms has decreased for the second year in a row. "If this trend continues," the NAWL Foundation said in a press release, "it could trigger a downward spiral for women in the profession—we could see fewer women senior partners and law-firm leaders in the future, and thus fewer role models and mentors for succeeding cohorts of women lawyers."

According to the survey report, increasing numbers of women are in positions which offer little opportunity for advancement, such as that of staff attorney, counsel, or fixed-income equity partner. One trend noted was the rising use of staff attorneys, 70% of which are women. While some women are "pleased" with that role and the work/life balance it allows, the survey report expressed "disappointment" that "so many law firms have not yet figured out how to develop policies and practices to retain women lawyers without simply relegating them to a bottom-tier role."

Other highlights described in the survey report include the following:


1. "Female flight" from large law firms "starts early and accelerates over time."

2. At all levels, median billable and total hours for women lag behind men.

3. Women have a smaller median book of business than men "even though their business development efforts may be substantial."

4. There has been a slight decline over the past two years in the percentages of women equity partners and associates in the typical law firm. Survey data shows that women comprise "barely 15 percent" of the equity partners in a typical firm, a statistic that has essentially remained unchanged during the survey's seven-year history.

5.Typically, only 20 percent of the positions on a firm's highest-governing committee are held by women. A woman is the firm-wide managing partner in only four percent of the firms.

The survey report explains that "along every dimension of comparison, and in spite of law firms' expressed support for gender equity, women have not made significant progress either economically or in reaching leadership roles during the seven years the survey has measured the impact of gender in law firms."

On the brighter side, the survey report notes a narrowing of the gender pay gap among non-equity partners. In 2006, the median pay for female nonequity partners was 84 percent of their male colleagues; they now earn 98 percent of the compensation earned by male nonequity partners. The gap is greater among equity partners. This year's survey showed that women equity partners earn about 89 percent of their male counterparts, a slight improvement from the 86 percent gap observed in 2011. However, the survey also showed that median compensation for equity partners overall has been declining each year since 2008. "Thus, rather than saying that women equity partners have gained ground," the survey report explains, "a more apt observation might be that women equity partners have suffered disproportionately less than men."

The survey report was surprised to find that the level of business credited to equity partners appeared not to correlate to their compensation levels (although there was no expectation that billings would be "the exclusive touchstone of compensation"). Typically, a woman equity partner's compensation was 63 percent of her billings, compared to 57 percent of billings for male counterparts. But the survey concluded that the median compensation gap among men and women equity partners "cannot be explained either by reference to relative hours worked or to relative billings credited." The factors used and how they are weighted is unclear. "The Survey data highlight the fact that "compensation systems in large law firms typically lack transparency" with "the potential for unintended bias to affect the process in ways that disadvantage women lawyers disproportionately," the survey report explains.

The survey report is available at or On November 13, 2012, Stephanie Scharf, the NAWL Foundation president, will broadcast remarks on the survey via teleconference to regional "brown bag" lunches throughout the country. The event is sponsored by the Women Advocate Committee of the American Bar Association. To locate a meeting near you, contact regional meeting cochairs, Evelyn Storch at and Heather White at or view the announcement on the Woman Advocate committee's website.

Keywords: litigation, woman advocate, large law firms, retention, promotion,National Association of Women Lawyers, NAWL survey, gender pay gap, female flight, equity and nonequity partners

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