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Bar News - January 18, 2013

Survey Shows Gender Disparities Continue


The results of a national survey on gender issues in the legal profession show discouraging trends regarding the retention and promotion of female attorneys.

In October 2012, the National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL) and the NAWL Foundation released the results of its Seventh Annual National Survey on the Retention and Promotion of Women in Law Firms. Since its inception in 2006, the NAWL survey has been the only national study to annually track the professional progress of women in the nation’s 200 largest private law firms.

The 2012 survey analyzed data in the broader context of a challenging economic environment and the changing nature of the legal profession, both of which affect female and male attorneys’ potential for advancement and success in the law firm environment. Despite these factors, however, the results of the 2012 survey are largely consistent with results from previous years. In every dimension of comparison, and in spite of law firms’ expressed support for gender equality, it appears from the 2012 survey results that women attorneys have not made significant progress either economically or in reaching leadership roles.

According to the survey results, women attorneys constitute a smaller percentage of each category (associate, staff attorney, of counsel, non-equity partner, and equity partner) as they move up the law firm ladder, and over time, women exit law firms disproportionately more than their male peers at every level. NAWL found that even though the structures of law firms have grown more complex over time, the percentage of female equity partners in a typical large, private law firm is barely 15 percent and has declined slightly over the past two years. In comparison, 70 percent of all staff attorneys, defined as full-time attorneys that are not partner-track, are women. The survey’s results indicated that this is the only category where women constitute a majority. Forty-six percent of associates are female, but the survey data indicated that the number of entry-level female attorneys continues to shrink every year.

Because women comprise only 15 percent of equity partners – equity partners typically fill senior leadership roles in large private law firms – women constitute a similar percentage of firm-wide leadership positions, at about 20 percent. In addition, female managing partners are present in only 4 percent of firms. As a result, the viewpoints of female attorneys regarding firm culture may not be included when a firm’s leadership discusses and implements important strategies and policies.

The survey results also show that the median compensation of female attorneys continues to be less than that of male attorneys at all levels; however, the worst discrepancy is at the equity-partner level, where women typically earn only 89 percent of what men earn. Although this gap is narrower than the one described by the 2011 survey, it continues to reflect a gender-based income disparity. The 2012 survey found that this discrepancy was not reasonably explained by differences in billable hours, total hours, or books of business.

The survey did report some good news, although it is mixed. First, female non-equity partners earn 98 percent of the compensation of their male peers, which is an increase from prior years. Compensation for female associates is an encouraging 99 percent of what male associates earn, but the survey results demonstrate that there is a disparity regarding bonuses, where female associates receive only 40 percent of the bonuses made to male associates.

The survey also found that despite their substantial business development efforts, female partners are credited with a smaller median book of business than their male counterparts. Female equity partners receive only 75 percent of the amount credited to male equity partners. Surprisingly, few firms counted even a single woman among their top 10 rainmakers.

It is important to note that the survey’s data only shows differences and trends, and not the causes behind those differences and trends, of which there may be several. However, in the survey, NAWL did make several recommendations for steps that firms can take to begin to address these issues:

  • Track billable and non-billable hours and implement and/or review policies to ensure that billable work is being allocated in a way that is fair to both female and male attorneys;
  • Implement systems of advancement that build in flexibility and accommodate the needs of both female and male attorneys at various phases of their careers;
  • Develop strategies and policies to give female attorneys appropriate credit for business generation, and to translate that credit in ways that eliminate compensation gaps; and
  • Incorporate transparency into compensation systems to prohibit unintended bias from affecting female attorneys disproportionately.
While most New Hampshire law firms are significantly smaller than those included in this survey, New Hampshire law firms are just as susceptible to the dangers of gender inequality in the areas of compensation, promotion, and retention. It is important that we all, as members of the New Hampshire Bar, take a few minutes to review the results of this recent survey and use them to spark constructive dialogue regarding these important topics in our workplaces and across our legal profession as a whole.

Without such a dialogue, we risk losing not only legal talent due to gender disparity, but also an opportunity to improve policies and practices to promote gender diversity in our profession.

Christina A. Ferrari is an attorney with Bianco Professional Association in Concord, NH, and serves on the New Hampshire Women’s Bar Association Board of Directors as the public relations officer.

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