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Women Are Now 70 Percent of Staff Lawyers, But Stuck at 15 Percent for Equity Partners

Vivia Chen

October 22, 2012

© Picture-Factory - Fotolia.comYou know that old adage—"What gets measured gets fixed"? Well, the National Association of Women Lawyers has been carefully tracking women's progress in the nation's 200 largest firms for seven years, and things aren't getting fixed.

Arguably, the pieces are more broken than ever. NAWL's 2012 report just rolled off the presses, and it's hard to put a positive spin on the results. Here's a quick summary of some of the findings:

    - That cursed 15 percent figure again. Women make up barely 15 percent of equity partners, and just 26 percent of nonequity partners.

    - There's no shortage of women in lower-status positions. Women represent 46 percent of associates, 35 percent of counsel, and 70 percent of staff attorneys.

    -  A big wage gap exists between women and men in median compensation. The worst gap is among equity partners, where women make about 89 percent of what men make.

   - Women associates get smaller bonuses. Although nearly 50 percent of all associates are women, they receive only 40 percent of the bonuses. 

   - Women lag behind in business. "Women partners are credited with a smaller median book of business than men, even though their business development efforts may be substantial," reads the report.

   - Compensation decisions are made in a black box. "The gap between the median compensation of male and female equity partners cannot be explained by differences in billable hours, total hours, or books of  business." 

    - Women partners lack clout. Women hold only 20 percent of the positions on a firm's highest governance committee, and only 4 percent of firms have a firmwide female managing partner.

The "bad" news this year seems similar to what we heard last year—and the year before—except that the news may be worse in certain areas. One troubling trend is the increased number of women holding staff lawyer positions (80 percent of the responding firms now use them), which is now a whopping 70 percent —"the only category where women constitute a majority." (And we thought it was a bummer that women accounted for 55 percent of staff lawyer positions last year.)

What's new this year, says the report's author, Barbara Flom, is that NAWL took a closer look at the relationship between compensation and median hours worked (billed and otherwise). Though  men's and women's total hours are largely comparable, Flom says it's "troubling" that women are consistently billing fewer annual hours than men. "The difference is only some 50 or 60 hours at most," she says. But what she fears is that partners will see that as "a lack of career commitment from women lawyers"—a theory that many are "predisposed" to believe, she says.

The report also highlights how hard it is to decipher how firms make decisions about compensation. "There aren't any useful correlations," says Flom. "It isn't purely based on books of business, it's not purely based on hours . . . so what are firms looking at?" Though Flom doesn't say it in so many words, she strongly suggests bias in the process: "Our concern is that if compensation formulas are opaque or discretionary, women—or men—might not be getting a fair shake and wouldn't even know it."

Is there any good news in the report? Well, let me do some scraping: In the nonequity partner ranks, women are now earning 98 percent of what their male peers earn (in 2006, women nonequity partners made only 84 percent). So at least there's parity among partners who lack power!

Moreover, the report notes that "although median equity partner compensation is down across the
board, women's compensation has declined less than men's." (Considering the wage gap between the sexes, I guess we should be thankful for small favors.)

But let's just call this latest report what it is: depressing.

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As frustrating as this is, it tends to be men of a certain generation and that generation are heading towards retirement. Statistically, I think I'm right in saying that more women are qualifying as lawyers in the UK now than men, so the tide will inevitably turn for the next generation.

I also liked this comment: [The gap between the median compensation of male and female equity partners cannot be explained by differences in billable hours, total hours, or books of business."]

I find it difficult to believe that the National Association of Women Lawyers had full access to ALL of the billable hours, total hours and books of buiness of ALL of these law firms. That information is private. They probably worked with a small, restricted sample and projected the results.

Besides, there are other factors in determining bonuses and wage compensation packages such as (1) years of legal experience; (2) years with the firm; (3) specialization (tax, corporate, vs. bankruptcy and matrimonial cases; (4) special skills (lawyers may have accounting or engineering degrees or an MBA); (5) complexity of the legal issues; (6) firm administration (recruitment, budgeting, policy-making, forecasting, strategy); (7) length of time required by an associate to close a case; (8) participation in and contribution to firm meetings; (9) in-office hours vs. online or stay-at-home hours.

Just because people log in the same amount of hours on their time sheets does not mean they are doing the same amount of work. Some associates have a higher billing rate because of their unique expertise on certain legal issues.

Also "books of business" can be misleading. An associate who brings in 100 clients worth $400,000 is not the same as an associate who brings in 20 clients worth $2 million.

I agree with you, DirkJohanson. I think most people nowadays would love to be a staff lawyer given the state of this economy and the level of law school student loans most graduates have incurred.

I especially liked this statement: [Women partners are credited with a smaller median book of business than men, even though their business development efforts may be substantial," reads the report.]

So if their "efforts" are substantial, they should still be credited with a book of business even though they did not sign up the clients with the firm?

Well, I guess if two people study very diligently for a final exam and one person gets an A on the exam while the other gets a B, the "B" student should argue that s/he deserves an A because s/he studied just as hard as the "A" student.

As a Career/Executive Coach working primarily with female attorneys, sexism and gender gap issues, among others, are two of the most prevalent topics I deal with in coaching sessions. What is comes down to for the individual often is an understanding of one's personal values and priorities first and then action steps to meet individual goals and objectives. In short, taking control of one's career, instead of feeling victimized, lessens feelings of impotence.

It's the worst kind of sexism - benign. In many instances, the guys get assigned to better matters because they are perceived to be more accessible and willing to work late/weekends (even if the case may not make such demands). Most guys I work with have stay at home wives, so they are perceived to be always available, even though they, in most cases, put in no more face time (and in some cases, put in far less) than I do. Perception will always beat reality, and until that changes, women (with children) will always be at a disadvantage.

Let's just call the cause what it is: sexism.

Guys, wouldn't it be great if firms didn't look at us funny if we told them we just wanted to be staff attorneys so we could have a life?

Thank you for writing about this infuriating subject. Recent research into the gender gap pay issue shows that all too often women are judged on performance and men on potential. (See http://www.ibtimes.com/women-ask-raises-promotions-often-men-receive-less-study-394556.) That has certainly been what I have seen at many firms, and it begins young. Nonetheless, following savvy “blame the victim” advice often get results (See, for example, http://blog.simplyhired.com/2012/04/how-not-to-ask.html and http://www.npr.org/2011/02/14/133599768/ask-for-a-raise-most-women-hesitate.)

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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: VChen@alm.com

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