For years, the stereotype on Big Law has been that it hasn’t done enough when it comes to gender diversity – implementing diversity initiatives with varied effectiveness. Instead of seeing much progress reflected in the numbers, the data showed a year-over-year flatline on female headcount in Big Law and the data was particularly egregious at the upper echelons of firm partnership and management.

The new NLJ Female Scorecard data is in and it indicates that firms may finally be seeing a slight payoff to their efforts. Overall female headcount increased to 35% in 2017 from 34% in 2016.*

*It is worth noting that there is some change in Female Scorecard firms annually, partially due to mergers amongst other factors which affects year-over-year trend data. In 2016, 254 firms recorded responses to scorecard while in 2017, 261 firms recorded responses.  One notable example is Littler Mendelson, last featured on the scorecard in 2011 and who came in number 5 overall on the 2017 scorecard with 48% of their headcount female, 29% of their equity partnership and 54% of their non-equity partnership. Moreover, of the top 10 firms on the 2017 scorecard, 3 were new additions. The scorecard published in 2017 reflects data from the year prior.

Big Law Female Headcount Increased in 2017

Source: ALM Intelligence Female Scorecard

Women in overall partnership increased a percentage point from 21% to 22%, as did equity partnership from 17.7% to 17.9% and female associates from 45% to 46% year-on-year.

A toast! Women in Big Law seem to finally be inching forward. Furthermore, when compared to some overseas data, US law firms are swimming in female talent. In a May 2017 article by Emma Ziercke and Markus Hartung of the Bucerius Center on the Legal Profession titled Fix the Firm or Fix the Woman?, the authors found that women make of 45% of newly qualified lawyers in Germany yet only make up 10% of partnership. Similarly, Japanese partnership shows comparable numbers, indicating that women make up only 11% of partnership.

But while the data at first glance seems rosy, it is too early to celebrate.

The first notation to these numbers is that the big increase came from the non-equity partner track, often termed “the pink ghetto” for the amount of women relegated to income partnership. Female headcount in non-equity partnership jumped a whopping 5 percentage points from 23% in 2016 to 28% in 2017 – compare this to the slight increase of 1% in female equity partnership.

Moreover, in keeping with ALM Intelligence’s recent white paper on the state of gender diversity in Big Law, Where Do we Go From Here?: Big Law’s Struggle with Recruiting and Retaining Female Talent, firms topping this year’s female scorecard were primarily focused on niche practice areas. A key takeaway from the report found that niche practice areas (including immigration, family law, health care, education and labor & employment), are the practice areas with the greatest proportion of women. However, top practice areas for Big Law (including litigation, corporate and banking) are not well-represented by female attorneys. The Female Scorecard indicates that this is not expected to change anytime soon.

So how do we solve this one step forward, one step back conundrum?

One thought on how to improve gender diversity at Big Law once and for all is to look at how the future leaders, midlevels, are faring. In 2016, 38% of respondents to ALM Intelligence’s annual Midlevel Satisfaction survey were female. Female midlevels reported to be slightly less satisfied than male colleagues (giving firms an average satisfaction rating of 4.32 out of 5 compared to males reporting an average score of 4.41). On average, women also rated firm overall corporate culture, relations with partners, and willingness to stay at the firm for the next two years slightly lower than male colleagues.

But two data points on the midlevel survey jump out as being the major indicators of dissatisfaction and a warning sign to law firms: only 38% of female midlevels purported to having a mentor at the firm compared to 54% of males. In addition, more women reported to being single and childless than men.

Women are Less Likely to Raise a Family in a Big Law Environment

Source: 2016 ALM Intelligence Midlevel Associate Survey

In short, the majority of female midlevels feel they have no champion at their law firm, and that they cannot successfully practice law and raise a family. This is not a track that can realistically sustain more women on the road to equity partnership and management committees, but might continue to overload the non-equity partnership track over time and/or continue to cause women to jump ship.

Some write-in comments by female respondents echo these warning signs:

“Poor culture in the department makes it difficult for women to feel integrated.”

-3rd Year Associate

“Associates with dependents could use more flexibility, better parental leave, and other arrangements that facilitate work-life balance.”

-3rd Year Associate

“No mentorship or training (these programs are for namesake only but not in practice) and unequal opportunities for women (unconscious bias in deal team staffing and associate reviewing)”

-4th Year Associate

“The[re is a] dearth of women partners (and apparent lack of promotion potential).”

-4th Year Associate

 “[The firm should implement] more family friendly policies; more focus on work-life balance.”

-5th Year Associate

While things may seem like they are getting better in the aggregate, the data indicates that there continues to be serious problems with increasing female leadership in Big Law.

Firms – pay attention: look deeper than your headline data and for clues on where you fall short, look to your midlevels.

ALM Intelligence Notes:

  • WIPL (Women Influence and Power in the Law) Conference October 10-12nd in D.C.: Registration is filling up for annual conference on women in the law! Don’t forget to register here.
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Daniella is a Senior Analyst at ALM Legal Intelligence. Her experience includes advising law departments in relation to strategy, technology, market intelligence, and operations. A member of the New York Bar Association, Daniella holds a Juris Doctor degree from The Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. She can be reached via email, Twitter, or LinkedIn.