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Top Law Firms for Women (for Money and Power)

Vivia Chen

June 13, 2012

Woman withmicroscope© Franck Boston - Fotolia.comThere's no shortage of "best" law firm lists for work/life balance or family-friendliness, but do you know where women are making gains in money and power? 

Women in Law Empowerment Forum (WILEF) just announced its 2012 recipients for its "Gold Standard" award. The big news is that 50 firms made the cut this year (last year at this time, only 32 firms met the standard)—and unlike last year, when smaller firms in regional market dominated the list, there are many more big-hitter firms on the most recent one. (Firms with 100 or more lawyers are eligible for consideration.)

Among the new winners: Davis Polk & Wardwell;  Goodwin Procter; Nixon Peabody; Ropes & Gray; Sutherland Asbill & Brennan; and Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr. (The complete list follows.)

What I like about the WILEF list is that it's based on cold, hard numbers about how women are faring. (We hear lots of soft anecdotes about how some firms are "good" to its female lawyers.) To get this coveted award, firms have to fulfill three of the following six standards:

• 20 percent female equity partners (this year, 40 percent of firms met this standard; in 2011, it was 41 percent);

• 10 percent female chairs and office managing partners (this year, 82 percent; last year, 81 percent);

• 20 percent female members on firm's primary governance committee (this year, 80 percent; last year, 72 percent);

• 20 percent female members on the firm's compensation committee (this year, 65 percent; last year, 75 percent);

• 25 percent female heads of practice groups or departments (this year, 42 percent; last year, 37 percent);

• 10 percent female representation in the top half of the most highly compensated partners (this year, 82 percent; last year, 84 percent).

This year, three firms met all six criteria, and 13 met five out of the six criteria.

Quite impressive overall. But one thing bothers me: Why is it still so hard for women to reach the equity partnership rank (fewer than half of the winners attained that rank)? In fact, I even noticed a number of firms on the WILEF list where women barely make up 12 percent of equity partners (among others, K&L Gates, Pepper Hamilton, Locke Lord are on that ignominious list, according to The National Law Journal's research). 

I mean, if you are going to boast that women are doing so splendidly at your firm, shouldn't a respectable portion of your female partners have equity? Is that really too much to ask?

Apparently, that's also a hot topic of discussion at WILEF. "I'm all for making that 20 percent women equity partner rate a standard for all winners," says WILEF chair Elizabeth Anne "Betiayn" Tursi. Ida Abbott, head of WILEF's certification committee, says WILEF is considering tightening its criteria to make that 20 percent female equity partner rate a baseline. "We don't want to be drastic, but we do want to move the needle," says Abbott. "We want to make it a bit harder so people don't think they can rest on their laurels."

Achieving equity partnership for women, however, is not enough, cautions Tursi: "Even with 20 percent female equity partners, some white-shoe firms won't have women on management or executive committees." These days, she adds, it's easy to find women who head up departments or practice groups, "but men are still controlling the committees that count." Putting a woman in charge of a department is the "new pacifier," says Tursi. "It used to be that they put women in charge of recruiting or diversity."

But the blunt-talking Tursi says she's largely buoyed by the results this year: "I think what's fascinating is that firms are taking all this seriously."

Here's the complete list of the 50 WILEF winners:

Ballard Spahr

Covington & Burling

Crowell & Moring

Davis Polk & Wardwell

Dorsey & Whitney

Epstein Becker & Green

Faegre Baker Daniels

Farella Braun + Martel

Fennemore Craig

Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner

Foley & Lardner

Ford & Harrison

Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson

Frost Brown Todd

Fulbright & Jaworski

Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher

Godfrey & Kahn

Goodwin Procter

Hanson Bridgett

Haynes and Boone

Hughes Hubbard & Reed

Holland & Knight

K&L Gates

Latham & Watkins

Lindquist & Vennum

Littler Mendelson

Locke Lord

Manatt, Phelps & Phillips

McCarter & English

Mintz Levin Cohn Ferris Glovsky and Popeo

Morrison & Foerster

Nixon Peabody

Paul Hastings

Pepper Hamilton

Perkins Coie

Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman

Quarles & Brady

Reed Smith

Ropes & Gray


Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton

Shook, Hardy & Bacon

Sidley Austin

Simpson Thacher & Bartlett

Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom

Stinson Morrison Hecker

Stoel Rives

Sutherland Asbill & Brennan

Thompson Hine

Wilmer Cuter Pickering Hale and Dorr


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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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My sister was a litigator for the federal government. She got tired of the long hours and politics and now teaches at an elementary school. She is much happier spending time with her kids and husband. Women in law, in general, seem to be much more driven to succeed and, dare I say it, seem to work more intelligently/efficiently than the men by necessity. From observation of my sister's situation, gender discrimination against women still exists in law. If given a choice, I'd hire a woman attorney to do work rather than a man since they have to do things better than men just by the nature of the industry attitudes.

The numbers are even worse than we can see. Not only are women clustered at the bottom of equity partner compensation lists, as Angie points out, but some of those 'equity' partners contribute capital but do not share in profits. See the last few NAWL Annual Survey Reports for the data.. Again, it's likely these women are labeled 'equity' partners so firms can pretend that their numbers are better than they really are.
WILEF should consider having a criterion that digs deeper into the equity partner definition -- i.e., that it excludes anyone who merely earns salary and bonus, irrespective of whether that person, man or woman, has contributed capital to his/her firm.

Angie is right. And the above 6 criteria are so unequal. Being the "head" of an office is miles different than being in the 10% of top half of compensation. Running an office, at my former Firm (I was an equity Partner and was there 20+ years) was a pain in the behind and given little credit and took away from the only thing Firm's care about -- bringing in big clients with big billings. Similarly, Firms are now putting women on the top Executive Committees even if they don't meet the original criteria (e.g., have the highest # of shares available for automatic entry) just as token members to make the numbers look better. They rotate them off as well. They are not permanent members. Being head of a practice group is hardly an honor. Most big Firms now have about 50 practice groups and multiple co-chairs of practice groups. They are now adding women as "co-chairs" to make the numbers look good and because they hope the women will do all the work. It's all administrative work anyway and dumped on the women! That's all Compensation C'ee work is as well -- administrative work given little or no credit at year end even though one can spend 100's of hours each year on that C'ee. I find it hard to believe all these firms have 20% female equity partners because I worked at one of the above and they had about 14% recently, although they hide the equity vs. non-equity partner status to the public. The 2 keys are female % of equity partners and compensation level. 20 years ago, the Firm I joined had about 13% female partners and the needle hasn't really moved in all that time. Second, out of the top number of shares, only one female partner ever received 80% of those and that is the highest ever in the history of the Firm. The vast majority are under the 50% mark. Also, female partners don't stay until retirement in anywhere near the number that men stay. In my former Firm, there are only about 10 retired female equity partners ever (and many of those retired at early retirement 55 or first full retirement at 60). I can't think of one who stayed beyond 60. So out of all the female partners at the Firm, only 10 made it to 55 or older. That is stunning! That should be a criteria as well. This shows female partners LEAVE in droves even after making partner. Why? Because they see the male partners getting more shares than they get at year's end. And they see the male partners getting more opportunities than they get. And the vast majority of the male partners still have wives who stay home and do ALL of the household tasks and child rearing tasks for the family so the male partner can focus almost 100% on business. There are some single mothers who are female partners who have to juggle it all -- business 24/7, kids 24/7, household tasks 24/7, etc., and who have to travel for business often leaving young kids at home with nannies or cobbled-together child care. The male partners mostly don't have to deal with any of these issues. Firm's pay lip to service to addressing this issue with Part-Time Partner policies but once you take that route, your career is dead. You are always referred to as a "part-timer" and presumed to have less commitment and drive. Pay becomes stagnant or slowly drops.

The firms aren't boasting; they're just trying to avoid getting hauled into court for bogus discrimination suits.

As to Angie's comment, its not men who are doing the "othering"; rather, its women who are - this column being the perfect example. Anyway, I do agree with Angie for something - since guys have overachieved women throughout all of history and will continue to do so for the remainder of it, in order for our daughters and granddaughters to not hit the "same wall," it will require daddy government to come in and force companies to hire underqualified women to eliminate that "wall" called our true nature.

This is a very useful set of criteria, although the baselines are depressingly low and just reiterate that the representation of women in equity partnerships has barely moved in 10 or 15 years of (claimed) sustained effort across the industry.

The bare numbers, however, are only part of the story. These standards go beneath them to reveal to everyone what female partners already know, that they congregate at the bottom of partner compensation lists, and have minimal management participation.

I'm not sure what '10% of the top half of the most highly compensated partners' actually means, but in my firm there was, I believe, only one woman in the top half of the entire equity partnership compensation list.

This underlying polarization is the reason that the base numbers have not budged. The decision-makers, and the institutional clients whose fees determine who those decision-makers are, are mostly male.

There is embedded, structural bias maintaining this gender disparity. The reasons for it are much more complex and deeply rooted than overt discrimination, which has been very significantly addressed in the 20 years I have been in practice. They reduce to a simple conclusion, however; men are in charge because men are in charge. Like attracts like, women are the 'other.' Primarily this results in a working culture which penalises mothers, but it also excludes women generally.

To throw some light on this exceptionally difficult barrier to advancement is a good first step. Removing it will be much harder and, all the time it remains, those bare numbers will remain moreorless where they are now. It's my belief that political action is the only way. Without that, our daughters, granddaughters and generations that follow, will be hitting the same wall that we do today.

These are turbulent times for law firms. The economy is still reeling, several prestigious firms have collapsed, and layoffs have been rampant. No doubt about it, this sector is feeling the recession. But for working-mom lawyers, who’ve long sought more flexibility, this may be just the moment they’ve been waiting for.

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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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