Legally Bummed: Change Needed For Women Leaders In Law Firms

Pop culture role models for female lawyers over the past several years range from the hilarious underdog Elle Woods in “Legally Blonde” to the relentless “Judge Judy,” the ruthless Annalise Keating in “How To Get Away With Murder” and the real-life depiction by Edie Falco playing defense attorney Leslie Abramson in the upcoming NBC anthology series Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders.It would make sense to assume female lawyers earn their fair share in this country in real life, too.Not so much.[bctt tweet=”#WomenLawyers have made little progress toward parity in the last four years” username=“takeleadwomen”]A new study of more than 300 U.S. law firms shows that women are still underrepresented at all levels of firms—small, medium and large—with gains of less than one percent since last year, according to The Glass Ceiling Report 2017 from Law360.In all size firms, women comprise just 34.8 percent of total attorneys in the nation’s leading firms. Only nine firms (2.6 percent of firms surveyed) report having an attorney workforce that is 50 percent or more female, while 60 firms (17 percent) report levels of 40 percent or higher.This is not gender equity. It also does not seem to be keeping apace with the Take The Lead goal of gender parity in leadership across all sectors by 2025.“There has been no real growth and that is a problem, with such incremental change,” says Anne Urda, editor-in-chief of Law360, a LexisNexis company completing the study.That stagnation may change in the future, as last year, the number of female law school students surpassed 50 percent for the first time since 1992, according to the report.[bctt tweet=“Last year, the number of female #lawschool students surpassed 50% for the first time since 1992” username=“takeleadwomen”]“Despite this growth, men continue to make up more than 60 percent of all attorneys and nearly 80 percent of partners,” the study shows.“Retention is the big issue,” Urda says. “It varies by firm, but women at big law firms, fell they have to make a trade-off” with work-life balance and family issues, Urda says.According to the study, women represent 44.3 percent of non-partners at the firms surveyed, up slightly from 43.8 percent in 2016. At the partner level, women account for only 23 percent of all law firm partners (both equity and non-equity partners), but their representation is much higher — more than 30 percent — among non-equity partners.“I think it is hard to look at these numbers and feel good,” Urda says. “but there are bright spots. It may not be long before we see the needle move a little farther.“Firm size does play a role, according to Urda. But while the firms were spread across the country,  geography was not a statistical factor in the study. Flexible schedules and mentorship do play roles in an increase in women’s leadership at law firms, the study shows.Small firms with 20 to 149 lawyers had the highest percentage of female equity partners, with one firm reporting 60 percent of female equity partners. In the smaller firms, though, the average total number of female attorneys is 33.4 percent.There are just 19.3 percent female equity partners at small firms.Firms with 150 to 299 attorneys, have 33.2 percent female attorneys and 18.9 percent female equity partners. One firm had 40.7 percent female equity partners. Firms with 300 to 599 attorneys have only slightly better percentages with an average 33.7 percent female lawyers, and 19 percent of women equity partners. One firm had 37.7 percent female equity partners.Large firms with more than 600 attorneys had their best percentage for number of female attorneys, at 36 percent, yet with only 18.7 percent percent female equity partners, according to the report. One firm in this category had 28.5 percent female equity partners.Discrimination has been part of the legal profession for women for decades. According to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg,recently interviewed by The Indiana Lawyer, discrimination was overt when she began her career.[bctt tweet=“Discrimination has been a reality for #womenlawyers for decades” username=“takeleadwomen”]“’Today, the discriminations are more subtle,’ Ginsburg said, with unconscious bias forming much of the problem,” she told Indiana Lawyer.Two factors may make the difference moving forward to equity for women lawyers, Urda says.“Clients want to see fuller, more diverse teams of lawyers. Plus there has been a spate of gender bias suits against law firms since 2016,” Urda says.Those suits include a $100 million gender discrimination suit brought by attorney Kerrie Campbell suing the Washington D.C. firm, Chadbourne and Parke, according to Elizabeth Olson writing in the New York Times.In another case, “Traci M. Ribeiro claimed in a lawsuit that the ‘male-dominated culture’ of her employer Sedgwick, a law firm based in San Francisco that ranks among the 200 largest firms in the United States, resulted in women lawyers being denied equal pay and equal promotions,” Olson writes.

“She claimed that one partner suggested that she, despite generating the third-highest amount of revenue at the firm, should receive a pay cut and remarked at a meeting of the partners that she ‘needed to learn how to behave,’” according to Olson.

“’There is more sunlight now,’ said Michele Coleman Mayes, chairwoman of the American Bar Association’s commission on women in the profession and general counsel of the New York Public Library. ‘Women are no longer going to be cowed into believing that they have to stay silent or suffer the label that says ‘undesirable colleague,’” Olson writes.In the four years Law360 has been conducting the survey, Urda says she has seen recurring trends.“It’s a trade-off  that women have to make. If you want a higher salary, switch firms or industries. If you want kids, go in-house for a better life, better pay and better hours. Women are constantly faced with that compromise,” Urda says.“The paucity of women lawyers in these jobs doesn’t seem to be due to any lack of effort on their part,” writes Suzannah Weiss in Glamour.“A 2015 Harvard Law School study found that female lawyers worked longer hours than their male counterparts. They were also underrepresented in top positions and more likely to face discrimination for their gender and ‘personal characteristics.’ Women’s lack of representation in law firms got even worse when they had kids, suggesting that the problem (and the solution) is in the home as well as the office,” Weiss writes.“In terms of the ultimate glass ceiling, some law firms are trying to get creative,” Urda says. “It is difficult to change patterns. Law firms are very entrenched places with rigid structure, billable hours and moving in lockstep. It takes a lot to change.”Still, she is hopeful. She says she would recommend women attend law school. “We should hope to see real change,” Urda says. “The law needs women in it.”Want more Take The Lead posts like this? Sign up to receive the Take The Lead newsletter each week. Learn more about Take The Lead training programs here.