January 14, 2013 Practice Points

Dismal Numbers for Women Lawyers Present Opportunities to Improve

By Allison Kernisky

The numbers are out in another major annual assessment of retention rates for women at U.S. law firms and they are not overly encouraging.  In U.S. News & World Report’s 2013 edition of Best Law Firms, Roberta D. Liebenberg, a senior partner at Fine, Kaplan & Black, R.P.C., catalogs the low numbers of women in senior leadership ranks and equity partnership at major U.S. law firms. While it seems common knowledge that women make up half of most graduating law school classes and that the majority of new associate hires at law firms are women, it is less understood why something frequently happens to these women lawyers along the way so that as the seniority levels rise, the numbers of women start to drop until women lawyers are almost non-existent in the upper echelons of law firm management.  Liebenberg reports that of the top 200 law firms:

• Almost half have no more than one woman on their highest governing committee

• 70 percent have no more than one woman on their partnership compensation committee

• Almost half have no women among their “top 10” rainmakers

• Only 5 percent of the firms have women managing partners

Rather than lament this perplexing state of affairs, Liebenberg points out that law firm leaders set the tone for the advancement of women lawyers within the firm and offers several well-placed suggestions law firms can implement to halt this disturbing trend, including:

• Take measures to reward lawyers who contribute to the firm’s diversity initiatives and hold accountable lawyers who fail to do so

• Set specific goals and monitor metrics for women lawyers in leadership positions and on key firm-management committees

• Institute gender-neutral evaluations to negate implicit biases and move away from billable-hour based compensation to more objective measures of performance in order to account for women lawyers’ often enhanced family responsibilities

• Seek to destigmatize flex-time or part-time work arrangements so that lawyers that choose this path are not penalized or forced off the partnership track

Individually, women lawyers should be proactive in promoting themselves and take risks.  “Advocate on your own behalf the same way you advocate for your clients,” Liebenberg counsels. This can be accomplished by being visible at the firm and in one’s community; strategically networking; engaging in meaningful mentoring relationships; and making oneself accessible during crucial times if one chooses to work a part-time schedule. While acknowledging the substantial investment law firms make in the hiring of women lawyers, Liebenberg encourages firms to actively nurture this commitment for the betterment of the firm, the women lawyers, and clients, who are increasingly looking for more than surface level diversity as a selling point in today’s highly competitive legal marketplace.

Keywords: litigation, woman advocate, large law firms, retention rates, leadership positions


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