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Yes, Male Clients Prefer Male Partners

Vivia Chen

January 27, 2018

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Female partners at major law firms ought to have more to show for their efforts by now. For about a decade, they've been knocking themselves out—attending seminars, getting coached, even taking up activities like golf—to gain an edge in business development. 

The upshot? A lot of commotion but not much else. As everyone knows, men rule on the rainmaking front, while women work at their pleasure as helpers. (Remember, men dominate the top earner spot at 97 percent of major firms, and nearly 70 percent of firms have one or no women in their top 10 earners.) 

Are women just lousy at business development? Or are their firms not giving them the opportunity to shine? Well, here's another factor to consider: Male clients still favor male partners.

That's essentially the finding by Acritas, an international legal marketing company. Based on interviews conducted in 2016 with over 2,000 senior in-house counsel at $50 million-plus revenue companies across the world, Acritas reports the following:

- Mixed gender teams significantly outperform single-sex teams on all industry-recognized key performance indicators.

- Teams led by male and female partners performed equally well.

- But male clients are a third less likely than female clients to choose female lead partners. (Male clients chose a female lead in 17 percent of cases, while female clients picked a female lead in 25 percent of matters.)
That difference in the way male and female clients allocate work to their outside counsel is significant, says Acritas CEO Lisa Hart Shepherd. Male clients are choosing women to lead their work at a rate that's even below the national percentage of female equity partners (19 percent), she notes, while women in-house counsel are being much more proactive. "Women are trying to throw business to women, since the 25 percent rate is above the availability figure."
So for all the talk by general counsel and other senior in-house lawyers about how much they're pushing for more gender equality (and diversity) from their outside counsel, clients—at least male ones—are essentially doing squat to improve the situation. In fact, cronyism still rules.
None of this is surprising to women in law firms. "People give business to friends," says a former Big Law partner. "So, if a client is male—as most clients are—he will often give business to his frat brothers, law school roommates, golf partners, fellow club members, etc." The only "fix," she adds, "is to have women rise to more positions of power as clients." (Women make up about 23 percent of chief legal officers in corporations, reports Acritas.)
Acritas' Shepherd isn't so keen on waiting. She proposes a more radical solution: Quotas.

"People don't realize that they have this bias, and quotas would solve that problem," explains Sheperd. "The quota should be targeted at a level to help female partners." She proposes that both male and female clients mandate that one-third of the lead partners they hire be women. "This will start to balance the power and increase the chances of equity for women," she adds.

Sounds perfectly reasonable, but is corporate American ready for quotas? "The brave clients will do this," says Sheperd. "If clients use the power they have, the firms will listen."

Let's repeat Sheperd's words: "The brave clients will do this."

In other words, don't hold your breath. 


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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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