conceptual image concerning equality of men and women
conceptual image concerning equality of men and women ()

Scores of Am Law 200 lawyers have celebrated achieving a long-sought career goal in recent weeks as their firms announce the latest class of new partners.

In some cases, however, the crowd of revelers is surprisingly homogeneous. At five of the 51 Am Law 200 firms that had announced partner promotions as of Thursday—Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton; Edwards Wildman Palmer; Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher; Locke Lord; and Stroock & Stroock & Lavan—not a single woman made the grade.

Two of the firms, Gibson Dunn and Locke Lord, described their failure to promote any women partners this year as an anomaly and insisted that they are committed to gender diversity. Edwards Wildman and Stroock refused to answer questions about their latest partner promotions. Cleary managing partner Mark Leddy and a firm spokeswoman did not respond to several requests for comment.

Whether or not this year’s absence of new female partners at the five firms is simply an aberration, it serves as a distressing reminder to some within the industry that institutional problems crop up long before attorneys are considered for partnership, making it difficult for women lawyers to make consistent gains at many of the nation’s largest firms.

“It’s not necessarily surprising, but it’s disheartening to see classes of partner in this day and age that don’t have any women,” says Deborah Froling, an Arent Fox partner in Washington, D.C., who serves as president of the National Association of Women Lawyers. “It starts early. It starts with where you get assigned; whether you get someone to sponsor you … Women very quickly fall behind. They’re not getting the assignments, not getting mentoring, not being taken on pitches, not getting the experience in the courtroom. You can lose those opportunities very rapidly.”

Joan Williams, a professor at UC Hastings College of the Law and founder of the Center for WorkLife Law who has studied gender disparity in the legal industry for decades, echoes that notion. “Implicit bias remains largely uninterrupted,” says Williams, adding that “it is happening all along the line,” to the point that when it comes time to decide who is eligible for partner, “often the jig is up.”

All told, 30.6 percent of the 493 new partners promoted by the 51 Am Law 200 firms that had announced this year’s promotions as of Thursday are women, according to an Am Law Daily analysis. While there are still dozens of firms that have yet to announce, the early numbers are worse than those the Am Law Daily tracked in 2013, when 34 percent of the new partners across The Am Law 200 were women, and in 2012, when 32 percent were women.

By comparison, NAWL’s latest figures show that women accounted for 15 percent of the existing equity partnership ranks at Am Law 200 firms in 2011 and 26 percent of all nonequity partners.

Among the ranks of associates, women and men have been joining firms in fairly equal numbers for years, though even in that category the balance has begun tipping in favor of men. Women made up 44.79 percent of incoming associate classes in 2013, according to NALP, down from 45.66 percent in 2009.

Of the five firms that did not promote any women this year, Stroock, with three new partners, had the smallest class. Locke Lord and Cleary both elevated six attorneys to their partnership ranks, while Edwards Wildman and Gibson Dunn each have seven newly minted male partners.

Gibson Dunn partner and global diversity committee chair Barbara Becker says that until this year, the firm had not had an all-male class of new partners “in decades.” Last year, two of Gibson Dunn’s 11 new partners were women. Over the past 10 years, the percentage of women in Gibson Dunn’s new partner classes averaged 27.9 percent, according to the firm.

“We are extremely focused on our pipeline, and have a strong pipeline,” Becker says. “We really believe this is an anomaly.”

At Gibson Dunn, Becker says, associates must have eight or nine years of experience before becoming eligible for partner status—and even then only if they meet certain skills criteria and a business case can be made to promote a lawyer within their practice group. Recommendations about who should be elevated go to a 12-member partnership evaluation committee during the course of the annual review process, and associates are told in December if their names are under consideration. No women made the most recent list vetted by the committee, Becker says.

Locke Lord chair Jerry Clements—one of the scant number of women to fill the top leadership post at an Am Law 200 firm—argues that ensuring women advance in their careers is a priority for the firm and that this is simply an off year.

“We really have an environment around here that stresses mentoring women, bringing them up through the partnership ranks,” Clements says, noting that three members of the firm’s 10-person executive committee are women. “A lot of our women partners are involved in mentoring, making sure our women don’t feel a sense of isolation, that they’re included in both professional and social activities, are on key client teams, and have a role in developing client relationships.”

She is also quick to note that the firm has had more success in promoting women in the past. Last year, for instance, two of Locke Lord’s seven new partners were women. In 2012, the firm’s new partner announcement highlighted the fact that half of the 14 attorneys joining the partnership ranks were women.

“We’re constantly focused on diversity and the promotion of women,” Clements says. “But that doesn’t mean we’ll have women promoted to the partnership ranks every year, because every year is different.”