Disproportionate attrition of female attorneys in Biglaw is hardly a new problem. As a 2019 ABA and ALM report on the issue noted, “entering associate classes have been comprised of approximately 45% women for several decades.” Indeed, at 5 of the top 20 Am Law firms (by gross revenue), female lawyers now constitute a majority of associates:
|Firm||% of Female Associates|
|Norton Rose Fulbright||53.0%|
But when it comes to partnerships, representation of women is substantially lower. Among those top 20 Am Law firms, here are the four with the greatest proportion of female partners:
|Firm||% of Female Partners|
|Ropes & Gray||31.8%|
Ropes & Gray is the standout performer, as the only top 20 firm with greater than 30% female representation in its partnership. Interestingly, unlike the other firms in this table, Ropes & Gray does not rank especially highly for female associate representation: only 44.8% of the firm’s associates are women.
And here are the four with the lowest female representation in the partnership:
|Firm||% of Female Partners|
|White & Case||20.8%|
Gibson Dunn is an interesting case in that the firm last year elected its first-ever female Chair, Barbara Becker. Gibson Dunn’s announcement of the appointment emphasized diversity and inclusion, noting that Ms. Becker created the firmwide Diversity Committee. It will be interesting to see if Ms. Becker succeeds in boosting the firm’s female partner representation above the current below-average level.
Any way you cut it, Biglaw certainly has a long way to go. Should that be cause for despair? Not necessarily. The good news is that firms are well aware of the problem and at least some of them are making a strong push to fix it, even if progress is slower than we would wish.
How to increase female representation — and retain female partners
There are a number of ways that law firms are pushing to increase female representation in their partnerships. Flexibility is a key theme. Many female Biglaw attorneys are working mothers with other schedules to meet outside of work. A one-size-fits-all approach to hours expectations (including office presence, billable hours, and business development targets) can disproportionately drive away women. We speak to many high-powered female attorneys who feel compelled to leave the law firm grind because they also want to raise a family, and they have concluded that it is impossible to succeed at both. When law firms incorporate more women- and family-friendly policies firmwide (not just for partners!) it paves the way for female associates to first rise to the equity partnership and then succeed there — both inside and outside the office.
Increasing female representation in partnerships is not enough. Law firms must also offer a solid support structure so as to not leave women high and dry once they attain equity status. Providing adequate and equitable associate and administrative support goes a long way in retaining female partners and promoting their longevity. In addition, establishing vibrant Women’s Initiatives with strong leadership and defined budgets is one way to support female partnership (and all female attorneys). And don’t forget the men — they need to be involved! Male participation in Women’s Initiatives is crucial in demonstrating that the entire firm stands behind a diverse partnership and supports female advancement.
Pitfalls to keep in mind
Law firms should be careful not to simply promote women to non-equity partner status and assume that’s good enough. Not all partnership roles are created equal. These days, so many firms have deviated from the one-tier structure of partnership, such that non-equity partnership often amounts to what used to be called Counsel. When there are several tiers of partnership, it creates additional obstacles to attaining the ultimate goal of equity.
Law firm leadership should also be aware that non-billable requirements often disproportionately take women away from billable work as compared to their male counterparts. For example, for some reason female attorneys are especially likely to participate on committees. Women’s Initiatives and other firm programs are important, but they present a Catch-22 that must be acknowledged and monitored. Firms should be careful not to unfairly assign a disproportionate amount of non-billable tasks to female partners or just assume they will take on an extra load. This is something we often hear our female candidates complain about, and it is an easy fix once the problem has been identified. But firm leadership must first be cognizant of the pattern.