The latest survey conducted by the National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL®) on Retention and Promotion of Women in Law Firms (the Survey or Study) reveals little progress in the advancement of women at the nation’s largest 200 firms. More specifically, the Study found that the largest percentage of women, namely 64 percent, continue to occupy the lowest positions in firms, namely, that of staff attorney, while only 17 percent occupy the highest, or equity partnership positions. These percentages have not changed significantly since 2012, when the Survey reported 70 percent of women were employed as firm staff attorneys, while only 15 percent had made it to the equity partner level.
The goals of the NAWL Survey, which has been conducted annually since 2006, are to assess the progress, or lack thereof, of female attorneys in obtaining leadership positions in large law firms, identify obstacles that hinder this progress, and provide benchmarking statistics for firms to use to measure their own progress. The Survey was described by NAWL as “the only national study of the nation’s 200 largest law firms, which annually tracks the progress of women lawyers at all levels of private practice, including the most senior positions, and collects data on firms as a whole rather than from a subset of individual lawyers.”
Ultimately, in making the following findings, the 2014 Survey concluded that, overall, little progress has been made in the advancement of women at these firms in the areas of compensation, leadership, rainmaking, and equity partnership:
•There continues to be a disproportionately low number of women who advance into the highest ranks of large firms, notwithstanding the steady output of female law school graduates (more than 40 percent) since the mid-1980s.
•Firms favor the lateral hiring of male over female equity partners, with about 66 percent of all new male equity partners being recruited laterally and only about 50 percent of new female equity partners being recruited laterally.
•Men continue to receive more credit for rainmaking and client revenue than women. For example, among the nation’s 100 largest law firms, women are credited for roughly 80 percent of the client billings credited to men.
Indeed, the current statistics cited by NAWL did not vary significantly from when the first Survey was released in 2006. NAWL identified possible reasons for the lack of promotion and continued pay disparity as failure of formal succession planning, which has been recommended as a way for firms to prepare women for future leadership roles, and the absence of females in law firm governing and compensation committees.
The Study further concluded that the surveyed firms blame the lack of female promotion to equity partnership on perceived lack of business development and high rate of attrition, with the former being viewed as the greatest impediment. This is true, although these named impediments are, to some extent, within the control of a firm (e.g., many firms create inordinate demands for billable hours, do not provide equal access to business opportunities, do not promote women into leadership roles, and do not make transparent the criteria or process of promotion to partnership).
Of further note is that a large majority of firms declined to share information regarding their compensation of men versus women lawyers, including 33 firms that participated last year. NAWL suggested that this failure to share data was, in and of itself, an indicator of the firm’s effectiveness in advancing women lawyers. NAWL remarked that the explanation for this might be benign (e.g., firms are much more leanly staffed), but that another explanation was that those firms declining to participate in the 2013 Survey were generally less interested in the subject of advancing women lawyers.
NAWL concluded that the trend of little or no progress in the advancement of female lawyers will not change unless and until the country’s largest firms make a concerted effort to ensure that change occurs. Firms can accomplish this by implementing more equitable policies and practices with regard to compensation, client origination credit, and female promotion to equity partnership and leadership positions. In doing so, the firms will be helping themselves. Indeed, NAWL research has found that there is a direct correlation with the rate of success of individual women lawyers with client satisfaction and the overall success of law firms.
Keywords: woman advocate, litigation, NAWL 2014 Survey, promotion, gender pay disparity