Law firms across the country have implemented countless policies and programs specifically aimed at fixing the legal industry’s gender diversity problem.
But those policies are not necessarily translating into transformative changes within the industry, according to a new study released Tuesday by management consultancy McKinsey & Co. and Thomson Reuters Corp.
The study, called Women in Law Firms, is part of McKinsey and LeanIn.Org’s broader Women in the Workplace 2017 initiative that looks to provide various industries with the research needed to promote women’s leadership and gender equality.
Over the last year, McKinsey gathered data from 23 law firms, primarily from Am Law 100 firms, regarding their talent pipeline, as well as gender and diversity policies and programs. The study then collected survey responses from more than 2,500 lawyers about their experiences in the legal industry on issues such as gender, opportunity, career track and work-life matters.
The study found that men and women start at law firms in equal numbers and remain relatively well represented as young associates. But this picture changes dramatically as women progress to more senior levels within a firm. The McKinsey study found that women are 29 percent less likely to reach the first level of partnership in law firms than men, while women make up only 19 percent of equity partners and occupy only 25 percent of executive leadership positions.
Interestingly, however, the study noted that over the last year of its research, women left law firms with less frequency than their male counterparts, until they hit the equity partnership tier. At that level, women were 43 percent more likely than men to leave law firms, according to data collected within the last year.
This high rate of attrition by senior women lawyers has made firms look to the drawing board to try and craft policies and programs focused on retaining female talent.
“I think for me the big ‘Aha’s’ were on the positive side,” said Charlotte Rushton, managing director for large and midsize law firms in the U.S. at Thomson Reuters and an executive co-sponsor of its Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law initiative.
Law firms, more so than corporations, have led the way in implementing diversity policies and programs such as parental leave and child care support.
About 91 percent of law firms surveyed by McKinsey offer maternity leave that exceeds government requirements, and 83 percent of those surveyed offer paternity leave that also goes beyond federal minimums. All law firms surveyed also offer the option of working on a part-time or reduced schedule.
But, Rushton added, “those policies and approaches aren’t translating into positive results.”
An overwhelming majority of lawyers surveyed said that they feared the potential consequences of taking advantage of such programs. Seventy-five percent of women and 74 percent of men said they believed that participating in a part-time or reduced schedule program would have negative consequences for their careers.
The study also found that there was a large difference between law firms’ commitment to solving the gender diversity issue among men and women.
Only 36 percent of women believe that gender diversity is a priority for their firm, according to the study, which noted that 62 percent of men believe that it is a matter of import. Less than half of women said their firm was doing what it takes to improve gender diversity, compared with more than two-thirds of men who said the same.
“That’s obviously a big dichotomy between having all of these policies and processes in place, but what people feel is a priority,” Rushton said.