Virtually all big firms have women affinity groups, but how effective are they in helping women catch up with their male counterparts in pay and leadership positions?

Until they are better funded and more strategic in their goals, they won’t gain much ground, says a report released Thursday by the National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL) Foundation.

The report, which the foundation describes as the first of its kind, is based on a survey focused on the finances, activities, and oversight of women’s affinity groups within The Am Law 200. More than half of those firms took part in the survey, according to NAWL.

Whatever other advances women may have made at large law firms in recent years, the NAWL report notes that one data point remains largely unchanged since the group began conducting annual surveys of the industry in 2006: While nearly one in every two Am Law 200 associates are women, only one in seven equity partners are.

Pat Gillette, a cochair of NAWL’s national survey committee, says women need to reorder their priorities if they’re going to improve that ratio. 

“Networking is important, but I think we got sidetracked into focusing only on those issues,” says Gillette, a Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe partner who cochairs the firm’s women’s affinity group. Gillette views pay equity within the partnership ranks as an issue that demands more attention: “We need to be focused on getting women in positions of leadership and monitoring that type of advancement.”

Along those lines, the NAWL report encourages women to be both more vocal and better organized in pressing their concerns. Securing more funding for the efforts is another key: The report notes that though 97 percent of Am Law 200 firms have a women’s affinity group, nearly all of them lack the money they need to make a real impact.

Gillette confirms that take: “It’s a ‘check the box’ thing,” says Gillette. “They say, ‘We need a women’s initiative, and we need to give them a little bit of money.’ ”

The report considers, among other things, how well women are represented on executive and compensation committees, how many are viewed within their firms as rainmakers, and how many serve as managing partner. It represents NAWL’s latest effort to highlight what it sees as a lack of gender equity within law firms

The report found, for instance, that almost half of all large firms report having no women among their top 10 business generators. Another third of responding firms reported having only a single highly successful woman within the top 10 rainmakers.

Despite these pressing issues, NAWL found that “fewer than half of all women’s initiatives
are evaluated annually by management. Similarly, fewer than half of all women’s initiatives
submit written evaluations.”

There are manifold problems with the way women’s initiatives are currently run.  NAWL suggests that participating in the survey might be a good way for firms to make them more substantive.

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