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July 16, 2014 Practice Points

Women Make Gradual Gains in BigLaw Leadership Roles

By Susan E. Mulholland

According to the Women in Law Empowerment Forum (WLEF), female attorneys are making slow but steady gains in leadership roles at BigLaw firms. The group announced last month that 45 BigLaw firms met the criteria this year for the “gold standard” certification for female representation in firm leadership and compensation, as compared to 42 firms in 2013. The group credits this increase to firms’ continued commitment to mentoring and training their female lawyers on business development, a key to success in the industry.

To qualify for the “gold standard” certification, firms must meet at least four of the following six criteria: (1) women account for at least 20 percent of equity partners or a third of attorneys becoming equity partners during the past year, (2) women account for 10 percent of firm chairs and office heads, (3) women account for 20 percent of the top governance committee, (4) women account for 20 percent of the compensation committee, (5) women account for a quarter of practice group heads, and (6) women account for 10 percent of the top half of the firm’s most highly compensated partners.

An impressive seven firms met all six WLEF criteria: Ford & Harrison LLP, Fredrikson & Byron PA, Holland & Hart LLP, Hogan Lovells US LLP, Norton Rose Fulbright, Reed Smith LLP, and Shook Hardy & Bacon LLP. Notably, Reed Smith and Shook Hardy have been in the “all six” category for the past four years straight. 

Other firms have made significant advances in women leadership roles in the past year. Cahill Gorden & Reindel LLP and Steptoe & Johnson LLP both made their first appearance among certified firms. Additionally, Sidley Austin LLP was recertified after having dropped off the list last year.

The WLEF findings also demonstrate that BigLaw firms have made gradual increases in several key criteria. The number of WLEF certified firms with women in at least 10 percent of firm chairs and office managing partner positions has risen to 88 percent as compared to 81 percent in 2011. The percentage of firms meeting the governance committee criteria has also increased since 2011 from 72 percent to 91 percent in 2014. Additionally, the percentage of firms meeting the compensation requirement has been inconsistent but managed to stand at 95 percent this year. 

The WLEF announcement coincided with the New York City Bar Association’s release of its annual firm diversity report showing the percentage of female partners at more than 130 participating firms rose to 19 percent in 2013.

This data clearly shows that firms have made a deliberate effort in increasing female representation in firm leadership roles. These advances, although gradual, are important. As noted by WLEF national chair and co-founder Elizabeth Tursi, “[a]t the end of the day, it could always be better, but the most important thing is they are making progress, and the firms are taking it seriously. Leadership clearly matters, comp matters, and having a critical mass of equity partners matters.”

Keywords: women leadership roles, women compensation, WLEF certification, women equity partners, firm diversity, BigLaw diversity

Susan E. Mulholland works at Bressler, Amery & Ross, P.C. in Florham Park, New Jersey

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