(s-dmit/iStock)

You might not believe this, but I really did try to be positive about the report that the National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL) issued yesterday. Sure, the female equity partner equity rate is essentially stagnant, but, hell, that’s a lot better than having it plummet, right?

Well, that was the positive spin. Today, I’ll tell you what I find troubling about the NAWL report. For starters, an unprecedented number of Am Law 200 firms simply refused to be part of the survey at all. The NAWL report notes that 33 firms “declined to participate in this survey although they had previously participated in our survey as recently as last year.” (For the 2013 survey, 92 firms participated—50 Am Law 100 firms, and 42 in the Am Law Second Hundred.)

Why did so many firms opt out of this survey? Roberta Liebenberg, one of the coauthors of the NAWL report, says it could be staff cutbacks or “survey fatigue.” Those are the benevolent explanations. But she also adds that it could reflect “a lack of progress by their women lawyers, even though the data is kept strictly confidential by us and is reported only in the aggregate on an anonymous basis.”

What’s also disturbing: Even among firms that participated in the NAWL survey, many dodged questions about how their male and female partners were compensated. The report says:

The survey’s questions with respect to compensation obtained the lowest response rate, by far. Despite assurances of confidentiality and anonymity, only 48 firms were willing to provide data on compensation of equity partners. Of those, the large majority were in the Second Hundred; only 18 firms in the Am Law 100 were willing to disclose the compensation they paid to their male and female equity partners.

We already know that firms are dodgy about who’s an equity partner and who’s not. But this refusal to disclose information about compensation shows that firms are getting even less transparent and, hence, less accountable. As NAWL pointedly notes:

Firms’ unwillingness to report about gender and compensation—even in a situation like this where the individual firm is never identified and results are reported only in the aggregate—reinforces what we know from past NAWL surveys, from studies sponsored by the ABA Commission on Women, and from extensive anecdotal reports: The gender pay gap for women equity partners remains significant.

I hate to sound conspiratorial, but you really have to wonder if firms are sincere about the advancement of women. They’ll talk your ears off about how much they want women to succeed and all the cool, fun things their women’s groups are doing, but when it comes to compensation between the sexes: silence.
Is this because firms are doing even more poorly with women than they care to admit? Or is it that promoting women isn’t really on the to-do list?
Pick your poison.

E-mail: vchen@alm.com Twitter: https://twitter.com/lawcareerist