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Bar News - March 7, 2008

New Data on Retention and Promotion of Women in Law Firms


Kristin A. Mendoza

The National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL) recently released the results of its annual survey on the retention and promotion of women. Consistent with other recent studies, the NAWL survey reports that women continue to advance within law firms at a much slower pace than their male counterparts, and that a substantial salary disparity exists between men and women at higher levels of advancement.

In a survey of 200 national law firms, NAWL found that women lawyers account for only 16 percent of equity partners, despite the fact that women enter law firms as associates in approximately the same numbers as men. This means that while one out of two law firm associates is a woman, only one out of six equity partners is a woman. Moreover, this inconsistency exists despite the fact that women have made up a significant portion of the total number of law school graduates for over 25 years. These findings confirm that consistently high numbers of women graduates have not alone been enough to achieve parity in law firm advancement.

The survey also looked at income disparity between men and women lawyers. Its results showed that 2007 compensation for associates was roughly equal between men and women.  However, male non-equity partners earned roughly $27,000 more than females and male equity partners earned almost $90,000 more than female equity partners. At firms with high hour requirements, this income difference became even more distorted, with male equity partners earning $140,000 more than their female counterparts in the same positions.

Interestingly, the survey results showed that women working in firms with higher hour requirements have no better chance of advancing within their firms than women working in firms with lower or no hour requirements. 

What about NH firms?

While New Hampshire law firms are significantly smaller than those in the NAWL survey, an informal review of the membership profiles of some of the larger NH firms show that women make up 15-20 percent of equity partners within their firms, which is in keeping with national averages. New Hampshire law firms, it seems, are just as susceptible to the dangers of diminished gender diversity as national law firms. Those dangers, as identified by NAWL and other organizations studying these same issues, include the loss of young talent already within their firms and the perpetuation of a firm culture that may negatively impact present and future recruiting.  Firms may even face a loss of client business as more clients ask for diversity statistics from their legal services providers and may move business from law firms that do not meet acceptable diversity standards.

NAWL’s position on mitigating these dangers through improved gender diversity is centered on the belief that individual lawyers cannot overcome the structural barriers to advancement; it is essential for law firms to provide the policies and programs needed to retain and promote women within their ranks. Law firms are already working on policies mentioned in the NAWL report, such as reducing minimum hour requirements, implementing part-time policies and the establishment of women’s initiatives.

So far, NAWL data suggests that hour requirements have no observable relation to the percentages of women associates and partners. The report also expresses caution about part-time policies; as such policies may result in reduced advancement opportunities. Instead, the report encourages firms with part-time policies to examine such policies to make sure that they recognize the value of investing in part-time attorneys and continue to include part-time attorneys in mentoring and business development activities. That way, part-time attorneys can successfully move back into full-time practice when appropriate. The report also reserves for future examination the extent to which social networking through women’s initiatives affects advancement.

The NAWL survey does not make any specific recommendations on how the profession should address these advancement and wage issues in order to achieve gender balance within law firms. However, as the national study is only in its second year, it is hoped that the long-term nature of the survey will identify long-term trends and solutions for retaining and advancing women within the profession.


Kristin Mendoza is an attorney with Devine, Millimet & Branch, P.A. and serves on the board of the New Hampshire Women’s Bar Association


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