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While large law firms make strides in implementing diversity initiatives, a recent study found that women still lag significantly behind their male counterparts in certain key Big Law practice areas.

The study by ALM Intelligence (ALI) titled “Where Do We Go From Here? Big Law’s Struggle With Recruiting and Retaining Female Talent” found that among women working at Am Law 200 firms, niche practice groups, such as education, family law, health care, immigration and labor and employment were those with the greatest proportion of women.

Other areas in Big Law like banking, corporate and litigation had the lowest number of female lawyers, according to the study. The ALI analysis also found that female talent is underrepresented in states with large law school talents pools.

“It really is striking how much attention this problem is getting without any movement whatsoever,” said Daniella Isaacson, a senior analyst for legal intelligence at ALI and an author of the study. “The only real way to solve this is [for] law firms to understand what their data looks like and where does the problem really lie.”

In looking at female lawyers at Am Law 200 firms, the ALI study found substantial gender diversity variances across all practice areas. Women in Big Law made up 60 percent of immigration practices, followed by 48 percent of family law groups and 45 percent of those lawyers specializing in health care work. But the study found that they were the anomalies.

The majority of Am Law 200 practices have an average female head count ratio of 30 percent. Practice areas with the highest compensation and focus within Big Law, such as banking, intellectual property and litigation, had the lowest percentages of women. Women made up only 35 percent of Am Law 200 litigation departments, 31 percent of banking and taxation practices and accounted for 27 and 23 percent of IP and M&A teams, respectively.

“I think attorneys go into those niches practices perhaps because they believe there will be more flexibility in their hours,” said Jacquelyn Knight, a legal recruiter at Major, Lindsey & Africa in New York. “[And] they have more control over the hours unlike a M&A or a finance deal that has to be worked on all weekend because [of] a deal.”

Karen Bitar, a litigation partner at Seyfarth Shaw and co-chair of the firm’s white-collar, internal investigations and False Claims Act teams, recounted several points in her career where she had to pick up and leave her family behind for months at a time to handle a trial.

“Attorneys are essentially at the beck and call of their clients and the court,” said Bitar, who before joining Seyfarth in 2014 co-chaired the national securities litigation group at Greenberg Traurig in New York.

Clients who are spread across the country mean that female litigators can be forced to spend a significant amount of time away from home, something that Bitar said leads many women to opt out of high-stakes and national litigation proceedings or self-select a practice that is more grounded in one geographic area.

“Law firms can be extremely supportive trying to recognize work-life balance [and] your firm can be as egalitarian, as family oriented, as solicitous of your needs as can be, but you have to pick up and leave and do the case,” Bitar said. “That to me is the bigger issue.”

Last summer ALI published another study looking at the state of women in Big Law, a topic that has been covered by The American Lawyer and its affiliated publications.

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