Why Law Firms Should (But Don’t) Make More Women Partners

It’s time to choose a sponsor! Put away your Alcoholics Anonymous membership and pull out your bar card. There’s now an economic reason to advocate for more women in law. Law firms, especially partnerships within them, are notoriously shy of female representation. But potential future revenue depends on making Jane, not John, a partner at your firm.

The ratio of women equity partners to women non-equity partners from 2002 to 2007 was 2.546, roughly half the ratio of 4.759 for their men counterparts, according to a recent Temple University Legal Studies Research Paper. Female partners are also paid less than male partners despite being equally productive in generating revenue per lawyer for their firms, according to the same data. There is also no indication that there are fewer women practicing law; in fact, women represented approximately 50 percent of associate hires in the eighteen years prior to 2001. For the same years, however, women accounted for only 15 to 16 percent of partners. So what are women doing differently to prevent them from earning that corner office? Some are now calling it the “The Sponsor Effect”.

Just like the phenomenon El Niño, success in the workplace is a paired effort (see, La Niña). In this case, the success of younger female lawyers depends on sponsorship by a more senior male or female lawyer. A study conducted by the Center for Work-Life Policy in collaboration with American Express and published by the Harvard Business Review found women underestimate the importance of sponsorship and networking among senior level managers. Furthermore, those who do appreciate its importance don’t take the time to properly develop these relationships. Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founder and President of the Center, explains, “a sponsor is someone who advocates for my next promotion and speaks of your strengths and makes the case for your advancement in your absence.” Supplementing this definition, Kerrie Peraino, Vice President for Human Resources with American Express, says “a sponsor takes calculated risks for you.”

These calculated risks are especially important in our current economic environment, where billable hours are at an all time low and fear for your job at an all time high. Instead of increasing billable rates, reducing vacation time, or cutting costs (such as HR initiatives targeted at morale and employee incentives), senior managers should take the time to sponsor younger female associates. In fact, the average gross revenue of firms with the highest percentages of female lawyers was approximately $20 million higher than firms with the lowest percentage of female lawyers. More female employees leads to higher revenues because for less compensation, women are willing to perform at the same level as their male equivalent. The biggest mistake made by partners within firms of any size would be de-prioritizing professional development and career advancements of their subordinate associates, especially during a recession.

Recession leads to higher competition, and sometimes harsh realities. So firms—promote more women to senior positions since female lawyers are equally productive, but cost you less (sorry, ladies, it’s true). Female attorneys—find a sponsor, network to the top of the power chain, research the opposition, and then don’t let your firm negotiate you down from anything but equal opportunity and pay. On the macroeconomic level, everybody wins. As demand for female partners grows, so the wage gap (and hopefully discriminatory hiring practices) will naturally decline (For more information, see “The Economics of the Wage Gap Explained”).

For more information, please read:

  1. Statistical Evidence on the Gender Gap in Law Firm Partner Compensation (Marina Angel et al.) – September 9, 2010 (report).
  2. Hewlett, Sylivia Ann, Kerrie Peraino, Laura Sherbin, and Karen Sumberg. “The Sponsor Effect: Breaking Through the Last Glass Ceiling,” The Harvard Business Review: Jan 12, 2011, 90 pages.




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3 responses to “Why Law Firms Should (But Don’t) Make More Women Partners

  1. Pingback: How To Restructure Your Office To Encourage Teamwork |

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  3. Pingback: From Working Girl To Law Firm Leader: How To Dispel Stereotypes About Female Managers |

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