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Show Me the Money--Not Work/Life Balance

Vivia Chen

July 8, 2010

"I can make your life difficult. On the other hand, I can be helpful."


Dialogue from The Godfather? No--it's an actual exchange between two partners in a law firm that's reported in the latest findings by PAR (Project for Attorney Retention) and MCCA (Minority Corporate Counsel Association).

Shocked? Well, I am.

Though I'm pretty familiar with the depressing statistics about women lawyers--that they make up only 16 percent of equity partners and earn $66,000 less than their male counterparts--I'm astounded  that nearly a third of the 700 women partners surveyed by PAR and MCCA report being "bullied, threatened, or intimidated out of origination credit."  

And yes, the bullies were male partners, says Joan Williams, director of PAR. "I don't know of one story of a woman pressuring another woman for origination credit," she says. "Zero is a pretty compelling number." 

What's more, the survey finds that the majority of women partners feel they are getting shafted where it really counts: compensation. More than half of women equity partners and two-thirds of women income partners and minority partners are unhappy about their compensation. This contrasts with an earlier study, says the PAR and MCCA report, which found that 71 percent of men "reported high levels of satisfaction with their compensation systems."

And lest you think these are problems of small firms in backward towns, three-quarters of the study's respondents work in firms with over 250 lawyers, while only 4 percent work in firms of ten or fewer lawyers.

"The important negotiations for money and power take place out of public view, so it's not surprising that unsavory things happen," says Williams. One big problem, adds Williams, is that women are still locked out of management and compensation committees. (One-fifth of the women surveyed said that there are no women at all on the committee governing compensation at their firm; and about half say that there's only one woman. As for minority women, they barely exist at all on those committees.)

Want more evidence that law partnerships are a boys' club? Half of the women say they are trotted out for client pitches but then are excluded from the actual work. "Clients will be surprised that the attorney that they think [is working on the matter] is not getting the credit," says Roberta Liebenberg, chair of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession. 

That kind of exclusionary practice, adds Williams, undercuts the "old canard that there's this 22 percent pay gap in equity compensation [because] women don't have time for rainmaking activities." She adds that "firms use motherhood as an explanation" for why women aren't more successful at rainmaking.

In fact, adds Williams, few women cite work/life balance issues as impediments to their career. "PAR started off by focusing on problems of the maternal wall"--that is, challenges faced by working mothers, says Williams. But what emerged in the report is that established women face "dramatic evidence of in-group favoritism," says Williams. For these women, not getting their fair share was the big gripe. "Many more said, 'I deserved origination credit and didn't get it,'" says Williams. "These are women who wanted careers and ran with it."

The report is chock-full of examples how women are excluded from the club, and how they are punished when they try to challenge the system. (Says one woman: "I know that I will be punished [for] raising my concerns, and yet know that I'll be mistreated if I don't.") And let's not even get into how minority women feel, which merits a whole other discussion. 

Suffice it to say, the emotions of the women came through loud and clear. I found the report surprisingly riveting. I don't believe there's a plot to keep women out, but it's hard to read the report without getting angry. 

If you have topics you'd like to discuss, or information to share for The Careerist, e-mail chief blogger Vivia Chen at [email protected].


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When I was an associate at a respected St Pete Law Firm- their only female partner- my boss stole my orgination credit for a ch 11 from me. My employment contract said I was suppose to get 5% of any business I brought in as a bonus.

Same old story .. I recently listened with skepticism when some younger women who were at my old firm enthused about how great the firm was at women friendly policies, while I was thinking, yes, but are you getting paid at the same levels as the guys? The best ones get smart and get out when they realize they are beating their head against a wall trying to change things.

When I moved in-house, I was able to see that companies are able to compensate employees fairly on the basis of actual performance, and create incentives for employees to increase the value of the institution to everyone's benefit. Why is it law firms can't seem to do this?

Many law firms must think that lactation rooms, flex schedules or in-house child care facilities are enough to guarantee them a good female attorney retention rate when women have kids. But it’s so telling that the study notes that few women cite work/life balance issues as impediments to their career, and most just want firms to “show them the money.” Studies like this one, and the resulting blogs and articles, are critical to raising visibility to the issue of female partner compensation, and eventually changing ingrained ways of thinking and doing business at law firms. And as a new generation of partners rises at major law firms, I hope we’ll see more firms working to even out the pay scales.

Well said Vivia. Glad the report came out. Sadly, it's old news.

I'm grateful for the stats on origination credit bullying--and for your highlighting that issue in your article. These numbers are consistent with my understanding of practices in many firms, especially those with the most rapacious high producers. It is amazing to note how hard it is for some rainmakers to leave a marble or two on the table, despite consistently high comp.

I was also glad to have the lens trained on an especially sensitive concern--the all too frequent practice of drafting women and lawyers of color for pitch teams, convincing once skeptical prospects that they have a rainbow coalition member on their hands, then assigning the resulting client work to others. My tweet earlier today of the Vault article on the report advised women and minority lawyers to avoid particpating on pitch teams unless they could be on the client service team as well. Easy for me to say...

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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