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The largest law firms in the US are in a bit of a holding pattern when it comes to the advancement of women within the firms, according to the president of the National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL) in regard to the group’s second annual survey, writes the Legal Intelligencer.

The numbers of women in equity partnership and management have stayed about the same since last year, while the pay disparity between male and female attorneys has increased at certain levels.

“While in some respects there is some progress, there are some very distinct areas where, in our view, firms need to be careful,” NAWL president Holly English of Post Polak Goodsell MacNeill & Strauchler said.

Similar to last year’s inaugural survey, 16% of equity partners at large law firms are women and 15% of governance committees are made up of female attorneys – a fall of 1%. Of the 112 firms that responded to the survey, 15% have no women on their governance committees.

Eight percent of managing partners at the largest firms are women, marking an increase of 3%.

As women move up in positions within a firm, their pay disparity increases as well, according to the survey. Male of counsels earn about $20,000 (£9,730) more than females; male non-equity partners earn about $27,000 (£13,140) more than females; male equity partners earn nearly $90,000 (£43,810) more than their female counterparts. According to the 2006 survey, male equity partners earned about $81,000 (£39,430) more than female equity partners.

At firms with higher billable-hour requirements, the difference grows even more. Male equity partners at those firms earn $140,000 (£68,140) more than female equity partners, the survey showed.

While English said she understands that some of these disparities have reasonable explanations, she said firms would do well to pay attention to their policies when such wide disparities can be seen at the macro level. One explanation for the larger disparity at the highest levels, the survey results indicated, could be that there are just fewer senior women at these law firms.

English said there is a bright spot among the survey results when it comes to the younger female attorneys. For the smaller number of women attorneys who graduated before 1980, 9% have become equity partners, the survey showed. In looking at female attorneys who graduated between 1980 and 1995, that number increases to 20%. English said the percentage increases to nearly 25% for attorneys even younger.

Within the next few years, English said she expects to see some improvement as more firms have women’s initiatives, general counsel are pushing for diversity and women are taking advantage of mentoring and networking programs available to them.

In 2006, NAWL implemented the NAWL 2015 Challenge, which called for law firms to double the number of women equity partners and for corporations to double the number of women chief legal officers by 2015. Even if the group doesn’t meet all of the benchmarks set out by the challenge, English said setting “stretch goals” is the only way firms can really improve.

Bobbi Liebenberg, a lawyer with Fine Kaplan & Black and co-chairwoman of the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Women in the Profession committee, said she found the number of women equity partners to be troubling.

“You’re really seeing kind of the two-tier kind of partnership … becoming entrenched,” she said.

That may affect men just as much, but with more women taking firms up on flextime scheduling, Liebenberg said they might become relegated to the non-equity partnership tier.

The Women in the Profession committee has been tallying attrition at Philadelphia law firms and will issue a report on the findings in the first quarter of next year. Liebenberg said the number of women equity partners is continuing to decline.

There is a growing trend, she said, of women attorneys older than 50 leaving the profession. That, coupled with attorneys with 10 years’ experience also leaving, creates a grim picture for women entering the profession in terms of mentors, she said.

“The pay disparity is also very unsettling,” Liebenberg said. Even if the smaller number of senior female attorneys accounts for that disparity, it only shows an increased importance for women to be making equity partnership in proportion with the large number of women graduating law school, she said.

Deborah Epstein Henry, founder of Flex-Time Lawyers, said the survey results are consistent with the data she has found in naming the Best 50 Firms for Women. She said the work/life challenges pointed out by the survey are increasingly affecting men as well as women.

Both Henry and Liebenberg pointed to the fact that it would be both men and women from the younger generation that will step up and demand better work/life balance. That might, in turn, improve the numbers for women, they said.

Additional survey statistics

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