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Big Firms with Big Profits Are Promoting More Women to Equity Partners (But Not at Cadwalader, Milbank, or Wachtell)

Vivia Chen

July 22, 2012

© Jason Stitt - Fotolia.comTired of law firms telling you how much they love their female lawyers? Confused by those "best law firms for women" lists that keep popping up?

Well, hold on to your hats—because we are cutting through the bull.

I've just sliced and diced the 2011 data on female partners at over 200 firms in the latest issue of The National Law Journal. We know which firms are elevating (or not) women to equity partnership. And we are naming names.

First, the overall highlights:

Women represent 18.8 percent of all partners—equity and nonequity. That's almost a 3 percent rise since 2003.

But women are only 15.1 percent of equity partners. (Yup, same stat for about 20 years.)

Women at single-tier firms fare better, making up 17.6 percent of equity partners; at two-tier firms, women account for only 14.7 percent of equity partners.

Only five firms—Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Loewy; Jackson Kelly; Ice Miller; Best Best & Krieger; and Ford & Harrison—have more than 25 percent women. (All are specialty shops.)

Yes, that familiar 15 percent female equity rate is depressing. So is the dearth of big-name national firms among the top 20 firms with the greatest percentage of female equity partners. (The lone exception is Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr. Click here, here, and here for posts about Wilmer.)

So what's to cheer about? This is the news flash: Women are doing well (relative to the national average) in firms that rake in the biggest bucks. From my NLJ report:

Women are gaining ground at firms with high profits. Of 18 firms with profits per partner (PPP) exceeding $2 million, 11 have equity partnerships that include more than 15 percent women. Three in that group have more than 20 percent: Paul Weiss ($3.095 million); Willkie Farr & Gallagher ($2.145 million); and Davis Polk ($2.3 million).

Another hopeful note is that there's progress at some of the most elite firms:

For the most part, the needle seems to be moving upwards for women equity partners at the largest, most profitable firms—albeit slowly. Nine years ago, for instance, firms like Cravath, Swaine & Moore and Sullivan & Cromwell had female equity partner numbers in the single digits (8.9 and 9.9 percent, respectively). Today, they have almost doubled those numbers (Cravath now has 15.5 percent; Sullivan, 18 percent). Less dramatic, but also notable, are gains women made at other Wall Street firms like Cahill Gordon & Reindel (from 12.4 to 19.5 percent);  (12.2 to 19.4 percent); Paul Weiss (13.2 to 20.6 percent); and Willkie Farr (13.8 to 20.6 percent).

But some Wall Street firms continue to have women problems. Milbank Tweed, for instance, had a very poor record with women nine years ago when I first looked into the issue of women partners for The American Lawyer, and it still does:

In 2003, Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy was dead last among the most profitable firms for female equity-partner rates (6.9 percent), and today the picture is hardly better (it is now at 7.6 percent).

I would love to know why Milbank is still having such a hard time elevating women. Alas, I can't get anyone at Milbank to talk to me.

But I have a bit of good news for Milbank: It's no longer the bottom dweller. Cadwalader Wickersham & Taft is now even worse than Milbank: Its female equity partner rate is now 6.6 percent, compared to 10.3 percent in 2003. Both Milbank ($2.57 million PPP) and Cadwalader ($2.375 million PPP) can join Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz ($4.46 million PPP and 7.7 percent female equity partner rate) in the glorious category of elite firms with huge profits and pitiful female equity partner rates. (See also "At the Bottom, Where Few Women Rise. ")

What to make of all this? Women will continue to make progress in the legal profession. Just don't kid yourself that it will smooth ride.

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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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I wonder if the more profitable firms are investing in senior female mentors for the women lawyers as Skadden did. http://bit.ly/PHTEgE Having battled my way to partnership in BigLaw many years ago, I know how helpful that would have been. Instead, my firm's sole female partner was an Ice Queen.

I am concerned that women's representation in the ranks of partners may start to decrease seven to 10 years out because of declining law school enrollment. Recently I participated in a tweetchat for potential 1Ls held by the Girls Guide to Law School and Ms. JD. I was struck by how many of the senior participants, myself included, urged would-be law students to think very, very hard about why they wanted to go to law school and what their expectations of legal practice were before taking on enormous debt.

Finally, despite today's good news, I believe there are still many impediments to women's success at BigLaw - sexism being at the top of the list. http://bit.ly/Obb1cd

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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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