It is now common knowledge that female headcount within the ranks of Big Law partnership, both equity and non-equity, has held steady for the past few years at around 20 percent. The obvious question is: Why?

First to resolve that question, it is best to take a step back and reduce the problem to a more immediate issue, one that often simmers beneath the surface in society at-large (e.g., the Google anti-diversity memo). Ultimately, who bears the responsibility for this state of affairs: the woman or the firm?

Let’s quickly put that fundamental question to rest. It is true that women may not be soliciting the help they need in certain areas; however, firms are responsible for what occurs within their four walls. Firm leaders, if you believe women cannot meet the demands of partnership, then you need to address the reasons why.

Are women treated differently from men? As partners, do they face particular issues men do not? We are often left playing a game of darts as to what initiatives and policies may move the needle. New partners are an important source of information for firm leadership as to why there has been a consistent failure to improve gender diversity.

ALM Intelligence’s 2017 New Partners Survey houses important clues on the shortfalls of the firm when it comes to promoting a diverse partnership. The data indicates that the firm must do more to support new partners, particularly women, then they do now.

Firm leaders, take note, address the following items and you just may have more diverse, happy and engaged workforce.

1) Women Find It More Difficult than Men to Have a Family in Big Law

Male new partner respondents reported being in a relationship and having children more than female new partner respondents. Only 5 percent of male new partners were single, compared to 13 percent of women. More men also reported having children than women – 84 percent of men compared to 70 percent of women.

This statistic echoes findings from prior research on midlevel satisfaction by gender, which noted that more male midlevels reported having a family and children than women.

2) Women are Better Represented in Niche Practice Areas

ALM Intelligence research earlier this year found that higher rates of female headcount in Big Law are within niche practice areas, which are typically not major focus areas for the firm. In keeping with this finding, the majority of female new partner respondents practiced labor and employment or environmental law, while the majority of men practiced M&A or intellectual property law.

3) Women Feel Less Prepared to Be Partner Than Men – Particularly in Business Development and Financial Training

Nearly 20 percent of women reported feeling unprepared to become partner compared to 10 percent of men. Similarly, less women reported having formal business development training before or after becoming partner (59 percent of women compared to 66 percent of men). Moreover, less women reported feeling very comfortable with partner tasks such as budgeting, creating alternative fee arrangements and staffing levels than men.

Percentage of Respondents Comfortable as a Manager on:

When asked how satisfied they are in their position, women also reported higher rates of dissatisfaction with business development, management’s openness about finances and strategy, training opportunities, workload and work-life balance.

Percentage of Respondents Satisfied With:

Source: ALM Intelligence

Many of the survey write-in comments also addressed confronting unexpected business development and financial issues when becoming partner.

Women reported not being fully aware of the cons of becoming partner, including:

  • There was no discussion regarding finances, cash flow, self-employment tax, etc. All of the benefits were known but none of the obligations were discussed.
  • No business development training, no guidance on internal working and politics of the partnership

What does all this mean?

Unsurprisingly, the fact that women are less able to pursue a family, have lower headcount in top firm practice areas, and feel less prepared to be partners than men translates into women that are less happy and engaged than their male counterparts.

When asked where they expect to be in the next 10 years, women were less likely to see themselves as head of their firm or a leader at the firm, a major rainmaker, recognized as a leading practitioners, or a valuable member of the firm’s team. They were more likely to see themselves outside of the firm: working as in-house counsel or not practicing law.

Percentage of Respondents by Where They See Themselves in 10 Years:

It is worth noting, as well, that 20 percent of women and 2 percent of men said they felt gender bias, and 14 percent of women and 7 percent of men experienced cronyism.

Both men and women should be encouraged to take part in initiatives that remove all forms of bias from the firm. One write-in comment by a male partner belies how little firms are doing to encourage participation by all types of people in diversity efforts: “I’m a Caucasian male, so I’m understandably not encouraged to participate in the many firm initiatives supporting others types of employees.”

Firms, if you are contemplating if it is the women or the firm, take note: the firm has work to do on creating a safe place for both men and women to have personal lives, explore new areas of the law, and dedicate themselves and their practice to the firm rather than looking outside. It’s good for society and it’s good for business.


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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. ALM-Intelligence