Contrary to expectations, women lawyers have not suffered more in the current recession than their male counterparts. At least not when it comes to headcount at NLJ 250 firms.

According to The National Law Journal‘s 2009 survey of the nation’s 250 largest law firms, the number of women lawyers at those firms decreased overall by 2% this past year, compared to an overall headcount loss of 4%. While the average number of female associates fell to 112, compared with 124.7 in 2008, the average number of women partners went up slightly, to 41 from 39.4.

This is good news of limited kind. Women still make up only about one-quarter of NLJ 250 lawyers, and women partners have yet to crack the 20% mark, accounting for just 18.47% of all partners.

The economy didn’t put a dent in female headcount at Baker & McKenzie. The largest firm on the NLJ 250 — which, no surprise, has the most women lawyers — saw a 4% increase in its number, from 1,494 in 2008 to 1,558 in 2009. On the more difficult metric of women partners, the firm does a little better than average at 21.1%. The firm lost one female partner, dropping from 272 from 2008 to 271 in 2009.

“There was a prediction by some that women would be harder hit, so one of the things that we really tried to do is make sure that, as part of our diversity…one particular group wasn’t being targeted,” said Lisa Meyerhoff, managing partner of the Houston office of Baker & McKenzie.

Meyerhoff said the firm has made extra efforts to retain diversity during the recession. Its North American Women’s Initiative has held monthly conference calls, during which women partners and group leaders check on each others’ progress. Female partners are also meeting more often with junior associates, mentoring and helping them build networking skills.

Top of the list in terms of women in the partnership is San Francisco-based Littler Mendelson, with 30.65% women partners.

In general, labor and employment firms are especially good places to be women lawyers. Littler’s female headcount rose 8% this year. Jackson Lewis saw a 12% increase and also ranked in the top 20 for women partners. What’s their secret? Marko Mrkonich, president at Littler, said it has something to do with practicing what they preach and something to do with the recession triggering a greater demand for employment lawyers. “We regularly look to what ways are there to improve diversity, what barriers can be removed,” Mrkonich said.

Another fact that may come into play is the nature of the work. Employment counsel can spend much time on day-to-day compliance advice and rather less on bet-the-company litigation, and their compensation reflects it. According to The American Lawyer‘s latest figures, profits per partner at Jackson Lewis in 2008 were $515,000, and they were $435,000 at Littler. That’s well below the $1.26 million average for Am Law 100 firms.

At the other end of the spectrum is Syracuse, N.Y.-based Bond, Schoeneck & King, which has the lowest representation of women partners at 9.09%. According to its Web site, the century-old firm did not formally create its women’s initiative until last year.

Jones Day ranks slightly below average at 17.98% women partners. But the number of female partners rose from 140 to 145 in 2009. Perhaps that uptick is why Mary Ellen Powers, partner-in-charge of the Washington office, remains upbeat about women’s place in the profession. “There are still hurdles,” Powers said, “but I think we’ve overcome a lot of them.”

Tresa Baldas can be contacted at