Women in Law: If This Is Progress, What’s Failure?

September 4, 2014

Working mother

Recently, Working Mother and Flex-Time Lawyers released their annual list of law firms they consider to be the most hospitable to female attorneys.

At the risk of repeating a refrain, the list does not provide a very pretty picture. If these are the law firms that are doing well, then the legal industry as a whole is really struggling to accommodate women (against the benchmarks these organizations consider important, at least).

For their “Best Law Firms For Women 2014” list, the two organizations looked for law firms that “support flexible work arrangements,” offer “generous paid parental leave” and actively work to boost the representation of women among partners and law firm leaders. Fifty law firms made this year’s roster.

However, it seems a bit early for these firms to pat themselves on the back too much, given that:

  • Just 19 percent of the law firms on the list employ female equity partners. Nationally, the average is 17 percent. So, the “best” law firms are only two percent better than any other firm.
  • No attorney at a “best” law firm achieved equity partnership while working a reduced-hour schedule (i.e flex-time or job-sharing). Last year, only one did. A reasonable inference from this would be that even stepping in to a reduced hour capacity means stepping off the partner track.
  • Representation of female attorneys on “influential committees,” which are defined as Executive/Management, Compensation/Finance and Equity Partner Promotion, rose between 2011 and 2014 – but only to 24, 25 and 26 percent, respectively. To put it another way, the law firms being saluted as the most welcoming to female attorneys have no more than a quarter of the positions on their important committees occupied by women.
  • When asked how many of their top 10 rainmakers were women, 29 percent of the 45 firms that responded to this particular questions answered “none.” The causes for this bleak representation do not lie with just law firms, of course, but when taken in the context of everything else, it provides further evidence that female attorneys are struggling to climb into the industry’s upper echelons of success and power.

Now, change is slow to come to just about every area of life. Magic bullets are not any more likely to be found here than they would be in any other situation. Even so, one would hope female attorneys would have had their work recognized to a greater degree by now.