May 11, 2016 Practice Points

Wall Street Firms Among the Toughest for Female Partners

By Angela A. Turiano

As recently reported by Law360, female partners comprise only 3.9 percent (or 335) of the 8,549 attorneys practicing at Wall Street firms, as opposed to male partners who comprise 17.1 percent (or 1,463) of the attorneys within the same demographic. The Law360 study, which surveyed over 300 U.S. firms about their overall and female headcount numbers as of Dec. 31, 2015, revealed that the percentage of female partners at Walls Street firms is well below the average in law firms generally, which have a 22 percent female partnership.

Of the Wall Street firms surveyed, which included firms such as Sullivan & Cromwell, LLP., Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP, Hughes Hubbard & Reed LLP, Paul Weiss Rifkind Wharton & Garrison LLP, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, LLP, Cahill Gordon, Cleary Gottleib, Cadwalader Wickersham & Taft LLP, Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson LLP, and Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP, Cadwalader, Fried Frank and Kramer Levin had some of the lowest percentages of female partners among their ranks, at 14.8 percent, 14.7 percent and 12.4 percent respectively, with Simpson Thacher, Hughes Hubbard and Paul Weiss ranked among the highest, at 20.1 percent, nearly 23 percent and 24.2 percent respectively.

The article further addressed the challenges female attorneys have faced in “defying the odds” and overcoming both “gender-related and gender-neutral obstacles” in order to achieve partnership status at one of these firms. These challenges include:

•the lack of female partners whom they can use as role models and/or to draw from to hone their own style;

•being one of the few, if not the only, female attorney in the courtroom—and as a result, being ignored or otherwise not given the opportunity to speak; and,

•being been misjudged and/or underestimated at the outset because of their gender, including being mistaken for a court reporter or a secretary.

Law360 interviewed several high level female partners at Wall Street firms who had various suggestions for how to overcome these challenges. A female partner in the male dominated field of intellectual property at Kramer Levin suggests that rather than dwell on the inequities and let these situations slow you down, to use them as opportunities to take control of a situation and command the room’s attention.

A female partner from Stroock and Levin who represents banks in complex consumer class actions, agrees that in situations where you are misjudged or simply ignored by your predominantly male counterparts, it is important to speak up for yourself and showcase your talent, but also suggests to “laugh about it then move on to prevent [such scenarios] from defining your career….”

In addition to taking control of male-dominated situations and moving beyond gender bias, the female partners interviewed also discussed the importance of networking, an area where women are not always the most proactive. The failure to network, explains a high-level female partner at Shearman & Sterling who specializes in derivatives and structured products, is a “potentially lethal mistake for any person’s legal career, regardless of gender.” This partner further opined that young attorneys need to understand that hard work, while both commendable and necessary for career advancement, is simply not enough. Women should embrace networking with the understanding that it is not about sales, but about building relationships with people and clients, the focus being on helping them achieve their goals.

A female partner at Stroock and Levin’s complex insurance and reinsurance group suggests that another way to earn a promotion to partner is to simply ask for it, e.g., clearly state your desire for a more senior position to a mentor or firm management. In other words, regardless of your gender, never forget to be your own advocate.

Finally, a female partner at Debevoise & Plimpton’s business restructuring and workouts group reminds other female partners that, regardless of how you “made it,” it is important to assist the next generation to make the same strides by, for example, starting or getting involved with women’s initiatives within your firm. In fact, the initiative at Debevoise has resulted in a 40 percent increase over the last eight years in partner promotions to women—an achievement that this Debevoise partner called “extraordinary.”