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"Best" Firms for Women? Really?

Vivia Chen

October 14, 2017


How marvelous. A fresh batch of "best" law firms for women lists. They are proliferating like bunnies across the American legal landscape. Law360, Working Mother and our own National Law Journal are just some of the publications that recently put out such lists. (Yale Law Women issues one too; it's called"Top 10 Family-Friendly Firms"—a much more P.C. moniker.)

So many lists. So many choices. Is there a better time to be a woman in BigLaw?

I'd love to say that these lists signal an abundance of opportunities for women in law. But that's not how I see them. I find these lists confusing, if not misleading. And sad. 

Some firms get the "best" designation because they boast a relatively high percentage of women lawyers—even though not many of them hold positions of power. For instance, NLJ women's best firm list is based on the overall percentage of female attorneys, plus the percentage of female partners—both equity and nonequity—at the nation's 350 largest firms.

The result is that firms with below-average percentage of women equity partners can get an inflated ranking. That means Baker & McKenzie (16.4 percent female equity partners; the national average hovers around 18 percent) ranks #24, while Paul Weiss Rifkund Wharton & Garrison (23.3 female equity) only ranks #38. Using a similar formula, Law360 put Baker & McKenzie in second place on its best women's list in the 600+ law firm category, tying with Jackson Lewis.

Perhaps I'm old-fashioned but to me the proof of the pudding is how many women are elevated to equity partner. If women aren't equal stakeholders with men, how can anyone say they have any genuine power in the business?

Which brings up my big bet peeve: Too often, these lists reward effort rather than result. That's my quibble with Working Mother's list. (Yale Law Women also emphasizes part-time and caregiver leave policies, in addition to percentage women in leadership.) Though law firms on the Working Mother list averaged 20 percent female equity partners, there were some notable duds: Most glaring was Blank Rome, with only 9 percent female equity partners. (Runner-up was Foley & Lardner with 13 percent female equity partners.)

So how did a firm in the single digits for female equity partners ever get a "best" designation? Subha Barry, vice president at Working Mother, says considerable weight is given to flexible work arrangements, generous parental leaves and business development training. "Blank Rome did dramatically better in the flexibility cluster," she explains. Though the goal is to increase female equity partners in the long run, she adds that it's key to recognize firms that have adopted "policies and practices that will help them get there, even if they haven't achieved it yet."

I'm all for encouraging institutions to reach lofty goals, but why laud firms like Blank Rome that's so behind the curve? What's so great about all those spiffy flexibility arrangements when female lawyers essentially have second-class status (women represent 30 percent of non-equity partners)?

Instead of focusing on initiatives, I'd rather take a cold, hard look at where women are making equity partner. And here's the reality check: Women are scarce in the top echelons of the profession. Among the firms in the Am Law 200, the top 15 firms for women are dominated by either regional firms or speciality shops, including practices like immigration, labor/employment or family law. (Immigration firm Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Loewy has the highest female equity rate at 41 percent.) 

The bottom line is that the sexy BigLaw firms are not the places where women are making it. So do we really want to talk about the "best" firms for women?

Email: vchen@alm.com

Twitter: @lawcareerist 



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Totally agree. The rankings are a sham. Thanks for telling it like it is.

Just like the ethics boards are taking aim at JAMS and AVVO, they should take on these lists. As you point out, they are misleading, and even in some cases, driven by ads in the entity publishing the list.

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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: VChen@alm.com

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