Are Women In Biglaw Marginalized? Why The Hiring Of Women at Big Firms Is Down

Copyright Inside Counsel

In October this year, the National Survey on Retention and Promotion of Women in Law Firms announced that for the first time in five years, the hiring of women at big law firms was down.

The amount of women equity partners—15 percent—has effectively remained stagnant over two decades. And, those female equity partners earn only 86 percent of the compensation of their male peers, according to the same survey.

Not only are these statistics bad news for women in biglaw, but the survey also implied that women and law firm managers are not at all on the same page in terms of career path.

For example, women lawyers are less likely to hold positions on the partner track. For example women represent 55 percent of staff attorneys—not a partner track position—which is the highest percentage of women lawyers in any law firm position.

Furthermore, women lawyers comprise 34 percent of counsel track positions in firms. And, although in many firms lawyers in the counsel position reported that the position is the stepping stone between associate and promotion to partner, very few firms indicated that their counsel are eligible to become partners.

Finally, to add insult to injury, the survey demonstrates that women partners are less likely than men to receive credit for even a relatively modest $500,000 book of business (via Philadelphia Business Journal).

Affirmative action and women’s suffrage are revolutions of the past. So, what is keeping female attorneys from succeeding in biglaw?

Biglaw as an institution—as opposed to various industry players—may be the one to blame.

Ms. JD theorizes that biglaw has been operating under the same, outdated structure for years. She hints that three reasons prevent women from advancing within biglaw:

“(1) The big firm structure was created and developed during a time where men worked in the office and women worked at home.

(2) The billable hour structure was created and developed during a time when men worked and had a woman at home taking care of the house, children, dinner, and the community.

(3) This was not a structure that predicted both men and women being in the work force and raising a family.”

Ms. JD’s thesis?

“The big firm structure will greatly benefit, as will the rest of the legal field and society, if both spouses can succeed at the office as well as at home.  Women—as well as men—want to see their families, have time to help their community, and do great work at the office,” concludes Sarah Villanueva on renovating the big firm model for Mr. and Ms. JD.

Now, what can your firm do to advance this thesis?

The next time your firm approaches the idea of a home-work balance, consider both spouses. Don’t assume the women has more responsibility. Instill a culture that rewards a healthy home life for male and female attorneys.

Track the success of your equity partners—both male and female—to determine whether or not women are being overlooked for their business-world victories. Ensure that rewards for cases won or clients attracted are equal across genders.

Finally, ask all your associates where they envision their career going in ten years. If your counsel track attorneys want partnership, make sure this is a viable option.

Cultivate a firm culture of honesty and open communication. Challenge outdated incentive structures, career paths, and compensation. It can all start with a simple conversation with each of your associates about what they want most from a position at your firm.

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