Isolated young business woman with a look of hesitation on white.
Isolated young business woman with a look of hesitation on white. ()

The National Association of Women Lawyers’s report on the status of women in the legal profession is out. And I thought I finally found something to cheer about: The female equity partner rate is now 17 percent! That’s a two percent increase since NAWL’s last report in October, 2012.

I was so excited I emailed some of the honchos at NAWL to ask them why the report didn’t make a big fuss about that uptick.

Here’s the cold water: “I’m not sure that’s that meaningful,” NAWL president Deborah Froling, a partner at Arent Fox, told me. “It’s been around 15 to 17 percent for a while now.”

Fact is, there aren’t that many positive developments in this latest report. But don’t tune out just yet—because there are some curious tidbits worth investigating.

On the surface, the findings will sound awfully familiar to anyone who’s been tracking the progress of women in recent years:

—Men dominate lateral equity partners. About 66 percent of all new male equity partners are lateral hires, while half of new female equity partners are recruited laterally. (This is significant because “lateral hiring continues to dominate the process by which big law firms move lawyers into equity partnership.”)

—Women are well-represented in lower-status positions. Women make up 47 percent of associates, 38 percent of counsel, 29 percent of nonequity partners, and 64 percent of staff attorneys.

—Women aren’t making equity partner because they lack business and have high attrition rates. About 44 percent of firms say the problem is that women aren’t developing business, while 38 percent say women tend to leave sooner. Another 11 percent of fimrs say the problem is that women lack sponsors and mentors, while 10 percent cite work/life balance issues.

—Minority female equity partner rates are pathetic. In the Am Law 100, minority women represent only 2 percent of equity partners, while male minorities hold 6 percent of equity partnerships. Among Am Law 200 firms, minority women occupy 2 percent of equity partnerships, while male minorities occupy 4 percent.

So what’s new in the report? For the first time, NAWL analyzed how the gender makeup of key committees influences women’s compensation—and the effect is striking:

For the 31 firms that have two or more women on the governance committee, in the representative firm [on average] women equity partners earn 95% of what male equity partners earn. In contrast, for the 17 firms where there are fewer than two women on the governance committee, women equity partners earn only 85% of what male equity partners earn.

NAWL finds similar results with women’s presence on compensation committees:

For the 17 firms that have fewer than two women on the compensation committee, in the typical firm [on average], women equity partners earn 89% of what the male equity partners earn. In those firms that have two or more women on their compensation committees, the gender pay gap is just about eliminated.

NAWL cautions that the analysis is skewed because many Am Law 100 firms refused to break down male/female compensation, while some firms claimed they don’t have designated compensation committees. Still, you have to ask whether increasing female presence in key governing committees can make a difference.

It’s worth a try, no?

Part 2 of my NALP report: Are firms really serious about increasing the number of female partners?

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