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Women still have a mountain to climb when it comes to gender equality in law firms, especially when it comes to making equity partner, according to a new survey released Wednesday by the National Association of Women Lawyers.

In its 2018 Survey on the Retention and Promotion of Women in Law Firms, NAWL found that women’s path among Am Law 200 firms to equity partnership is bleak. Over the last 12 years that NAWL has conducted the survey, the number of female equity partners has increased only 5 percent, from 15 percent in 2006, to 20 percent today.

“We are making slow, incremental progress on the promotion of women into equity partnership at law firms in this country,” said NAWL president Sarretta McDonough, a former lawyer at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher and Kirkland & Ellis who earlier this year became an associate general counsel at Intel Corp.

Given this current rate of growth, it would take nearly a century for women to make up half of the equity partnership tier, McDonough said. “We’re not looking at reaching that level until 2078 at this rate, so we still have a lot of work to do,” she added.

The NAWL survey found that women enter the legal profession at rates similar to men, comprising 47 percent of associates. But as female lawyers rise in seniority, their numbers drop substantially, as they make up only 30 percent of the nonequity partnership tier and 31 percent of entering equity partner classes.

After nearly a decade working on the survey, McDonough said that NAWL has started to focus in on things that it can exclude as the reasons for this disparity, mostly notably the billable hour.

Sarretta McDonough

“Women and men are reporting the same level of billable hours,” she said.

The NAWL survey found that among equity partners, women work just as many hours as men, but their client billings are only 92 percent of those of their male colleagues. And while billing rates are the same at the associate level, by the time lawyers reach nonequity partnership, they’ve developed a 5 percent gap that continues into equity status.

Of the 97 Am Law 200 firms surveyed, 93 percent reported that their top earner is a man. Of the 10 most highly compensated lawyers in a firm, zero or one of those were women.

Despite those sobering statistics, there were some bright spots.

Among the top Am Law 50 firms, the NAWL report noted that 37 percent of their governance committee seats were filled by women, an increase over their numbers last year and a greater percentage than those reported by the rest of the Am Law 200.

“That’s where a lot of the compensation and promotion decisions are made,” McDonough said.

By having more women in the room making those decisions, McDonough said she is hopeful that data collected on the firms over the next few years will show an increase in women at the equity partnership level.

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