Unhappy African American business woman isolated on white background

The National Association of Women Lawyers just released its annual report. And the news flash is this: It’s not totally depressing. 

Women now represent 19 percent of equity partners—a record high, though still a sad showing. For those of us who’ve been covering women in the legal profession for over a decade, “depressing” is the usual standard. And while 19 percent remains woefully low, women seem to be on a forward march.

To be sure, though, there are plenty of stasis in the NAWL report—it surveyed the Am Law 200 firms, of which 90 completed the form—that would frustrate most female lawyers:

  • Though firms have been hiring women and men at almost equal numbers out of law schools, few women make it to partnership: In addition to the relatively low equity partner percentage, women make up just 30 percent of nonequity partners.
  • Men outearn women at all levels, from staff lawyers to associates to equity partners. (Women make 90 to 94 percent of men’s earning in the same position.)
  • Among equity partners, women work just as many hours as men, but their client billings are 92 percent of those of men.    
  • Men dominate the top earner spots: 97 percent of firms report their top earner is a man, and nearly 70 percent of firms have one or no women in their top 10 earners. 
  • Women of color (Black, Asian, Latina) represent only 12 percent of women equity partners and about 2 percent of all equity partners.

None of this should surprise anyone, but that 19 percent female equity partner rate still popped out at me. While it might seem paltry—it’s been over 20 years since women entered law schools in significant numbers—how exciting that women are now on the brink of breaking the 20 percent threshold?

But NAWL president Angela Brandt isn’t so impressed. “You have to remember that, in 2006, NAWL issued its [original] challenge for firms to have at least 30 percent women equity partners by 2015,” explains Brandt. “So to be 19 percent now is disappointing.”

While most of the findings show that women lag in just about every category, Brandt points out two areas of progress: Women’s increased participation in firm governance and recent partnership rates.

In the last 10 years, the percentage of women on compensation or management committees, or those serving as managing partners or practice group leaders, has doubled to almost 25 percent. “Firms now recognize the importance of women on governing committees, and that’s a promising statistic,” notes Brandt.

The other area of promise is that in the last class of equity partners, 33 percent were women. “If that trend continues, we will see an increase in overall numbers,” says Brandt.

Women hitting highs in equity partnership rates and management roles: What gives? Among other factors, the report finds that women’s initiatives are doing their jobs: “Women’s Initiatives have emerged as well-accepted, well-utilized efforts for improving the experiences and trajectories of women in law firms.” At most firms, says the report, women’s initiatives have been incorporated into the firm’s strategic vision and include business development training and policy planning. 

Still skeptical that these initiatives are substantive? Well, the report finds a correlation between well-established initiatives and women’s progress. The report notes that firms with established initiatives had higher percentages of women equity partners (18 -19 percent compared to 12 percent for firms with newish initiatives. Moreover, the pay gap between female and male equity partners was also smaller in firms with more established initiatives. “If you have buy-in from the top, support from men, proper resources, plus a focus on strategic goals, these initiatives have better results,” says Brandt.

Who knew? Those initiatives, which we thought were just gripe sessions or excuses for a cocktail party, actually work