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Female Associate Numbers Decline—Again

Vivia Chen

December 11, 2013

Exhausted-Woman-by passigattiiStock(1)Post updated December 12, 2013 at 2:00 p.m. with additional comment by James Leipold.

NALP just release its annual report on diversity, and the news is none too cheery. In a nutshell: Women in the associate ranks declined for the fourth year in a row, while women and minorities in the partnership ranks show some (tiny) improvement.

Here are the top findings in the NALP report, which looked at race and gender information of over 110,000 lawyers nationwide (the vast majority work at big, national firms):

1. Female associate numbers fell: In 2009, women accounted for 45.66 percent of associates; in 2013, it was 44.79 percent. (In 1993, the percentage of women associates was 38.99 percent.)

2. Minority associate numbers recovered, except for minority women: Overall, minority associate numbers recovered from a decline in 2009 to 2010. From 1993 to 2013, minority associate percentages increased from 8.36 to 20.93 percent. But minority women associates in the last two years "barely exceeded the 11.02 percent figure for 2009."

3. Female and minority partners numbers rise—a bit. In 2013, minorities accounted for 7.10 percent (up from 6.71 percent in 2012) of partners in big firms, and women 20.22 percent of partners (up from 19.91 percent in 2012).

But NALP points out that the total change "has been only marginal" since 1993 when minorities accounted for 2.55 percent and women 12.27 percent of partners. Minority women make up 2.26 percent of partners, which NALP calls "the most dramatically underrepresented group at the partnership level." (Minority men are 4.84 percent of partners, up from 4.55 percent in 2012.)

4. Overall, there's an increase of female lawyers—by 1/10 of 1 percent! "For lawyers as a whole, representation of women (both minority and non-minority) was up by only about one-tenth of a percentage point and remains lower than in 2009." 

5. Compared to women, minority lawyers fared slightly better overall. "Minorities now make up 13.36 percent of lawyers at these law firms, compared with 12.91 percent in 2012." Women, however, have seen their numbers drop steadily, albeit in tiny increments: 32.78 percent in 2013; 32.67 percent in 2012; 32.61 percent in 2011, and 32.69 percent in 2010—"all lower than the 32.97 percent mark reached in 2009." Minority women showed some improvement: now 6.49 percent, up from 6.32 percent in 2012.

Frankly, neither women nor minorities are doing well. Still, let's go back to that third point above: Women's representation in the profession has increased by one-tenth of one percent in the last four years. Whoopee! I mean that is just spectacularly depressing.

James Leipold, NALP’s executive director, also sounds alarmed by that trend. He says the four year decline in women associates establishes a "trend." He adds that more women seem to be "opting out of the BigLaw scene right from the start," plus, he adds, women are leaving associate positions at  higher rates for men. 

Leipold also notes in NALP's press release that the drop in female associates, unlike that of minority associates, has not rebounded since the recession:

This is a significant historical shift, and represents a divergence in the previously parallel stories of women and minorities in large law firms . . .While the percentage of women partners, small as it is, has continued to grow each year, sustained incremental growth in the future is at risk if the percentage of women associates continues to inch downwards. This should be a red flag for everyone in legal education and the law firm world.

Indeed, it's high time to raise the red flags. Not that it will do much good.

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E-mail  Vivia Chen: vchen@alm.com     Follow her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/lawcareerist



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Its ironic to me, that your take on the numbers is that they are negative for women. Based on the numbers you state, female partners increased by just under 1% and female associates decreased by just under 1%.

This would mean male partners decreased by just under 1% and male associates increased by just under 1%.

Which gender is getting the worse end of this stick? It seems to me that there are less female associates because they are becoming partners, just as there are fewer male partners as they are not being promoted above associate.

Also, when all of these numbers are less than 1%, how is this even statistically significant enough to define a trend one way or another? This article just feels like gender baiting.

I question whether women opting out of big law is a crisis vs. a cause for celebration. I hope/assume that this trend is a sign that (a) women now have more options available to them vs. biglaw being the only path as was the case a decade ago; (b) women are becoming more comfortable with pursuing different paths. My experience running Paragon Legal has been that women are incredibly excited and empowered by the emergence of alternatives to biglaw that will allow them to have thriving practices and yet have a life too, including raising families. To the extent that these numbers are down because something systemic is happening to exclude equal participation of women in the indsutry, then this is indeed cause for alarm. But I think we really need to start looking more carefully at why this trend is happening, and whether it is actually a negative thing.

Guess they are all leaving to be - journalists. :-)

So, if I am reading this right, despite the recession and all the horror stories about big firms being misogynistic dystopias where work-life balance is a joke, the ranks of female associates has held steady at just under 50%? Vivia, I hate to disagree, but why is that "shockingly depressing?" Sounds pretty positive to me.

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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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