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Progress for Women--Except at the High End

Vivia Chen

June 16, 2011

WomanAward Another week, another list about women lawyers. The latest comes from Women in Law Empowerment Forum, which named 32 firms as recipients of its "Gold Standard" award for promoting women.

What's different about the WILEF list is that it's focused on the bottom line--namely, how women partners fare on the money and leadership front. WILEF isn't bothering with life/work balance issues--like part-time polcies--that often drive discussions about women's progress.

To qualify for the WILEF award, firms have to hit at least three of the following six marks:

• 20 percent female equity partners.

• 10 percent female chairs and office managing partners.

• 20 percent female members on the firm's primary governance committee.

• 20 percent female members on the firm's compensation committee.

• 25 percent female heads of practice groups or department.

• 10 percent female representation in top half of the most highly compensated partners.

"I didn't think these criteria were too hard to meet, but I wasn't surprised that so few firms qualified," said WILEF chair Elizabeth Anne "Betiayn" Tursi to The National Law Journal. (WILEF invited 300 firms with 100 or more attorneys to apply.)

Frankly, that 32 number exceeded my expectations--but then my expectations tend to run quite low about women's progress in law firms. However, when I took a closer look at the winner pool, I wasn't quite so impressed.

For instance, "only 42 percent of the certified firms had 20 percent or more women as equity partners, and even fewer--37 percent--met the standard that women make up at least 25 percent of practice group leaders or department heads," reports the NLJ's Karen Sloan. 

But what I find glaring--and discouraging--is that so few of the most profitable, established firms are represented on the list. Among the top 20 Am Law 200 firms with the highest profits per partner last year, only three made it: Gibson Dunn, Simpson Thacher, and Skadden Arps.

What's more, of the 32 winners, the vast majority of them--19 firms, including six that are not Am Law 200 firms--seemed to have PPP below $1 million. In fact, some firms had PPP that barely reached $500,000, such as Quarles & Brady ($395,000); Frost Brown ($415,000); Holland & Hart ($465,000); Littler Mendelson ($485,000); Stoel Rives ($490,000); and Davis Wright ($495,000)--and that's not counting the six non-Am Law 200 firms, which likely have PPP on the lower end. Many of the winning firms, noted Tursi to the NLJ, tend to be small and located outside key legal markets.

Not that there's anything wrong with success on a smaller scale in a smaller city. But for women who aspire to make it in the most profitable, prestigious firms, the message is not too encouraging. For now, there seems to be a troubling inverse relationship between high profits and women's rate of success.

Yes, there's progress for women--but not so much on the upper rack.

Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? E-mail The Careerist's chief blogger, Vivia Chen, at [email protected].

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Is it possible that being a less profitable firm is actually positively correlated with the influence of women at the firm, in the sense that women, when faced with the various trade-offs involved, may be on the whole be less motivated by money in their career decisions?

Not surprising, I suppose. Bigger firms tend to have a much larger, older stable of partners. It's a little tougher to break into an old boys' club.

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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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