Equity or Non-Equity, That Is The Question

Over the past two years, the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) has tried to obtain information regarding the breakdown of equity and non-equity partners by gender and race at law firms. The majority of NALP’s law firm members refused to hand over the information, and NALP eventually gave in on February 12.

The Executive Director of NALP, Andrew Leipold, indicated that most firms cited privacy concerns for not divulging the details of their equity and non-equity partnership breakdowns. According to Leipold, small firms especially worried that providing such information would allow non-equity partners to be easily identified and stigmatized.

Michele Landis Dauber, a professor at Stanford Law School, contends that it’s not about protecting women, but about billing rates. She says, “[Firms] don’t want clients to know who’s equity and who’s not; ambiguity allows them to bill at higher rates.”

But even if we were to accept firms’ stated reason for not handing over the data—protecting female and minority partners from the stigma of being identified as non-equity partners—do we find such a reason to be acceptable? Being a partner of any kind is significant accomplishment, but if the firms themselves view being identified as non-equity partners as stigmatizing, isn’t it fair to conclude that the stigma is also internal?

I imagine many young job seekers would like to know what percentage of women and minority partners are equity partners at various firms. If the percentage is 0% of an already small number at the firms they are considering, that information would be all the more important. Fernande Duffly, a Massachusetts Appeals Court judge and former President of the National Association of Women Judges, explained exactly why such information is important, noting: “If you’re making a career selection, you want a place where you have opportunity for real leadership; I think law students want to be full partners.”

Personally, I would like to see NALP publish the information from the firms that were willing to provide the breakdown on equity and non-equity partners and identify the ones that refused. Perhaps, the other firms could be “shamed” into providing the statistics.

On the other hand, it may be that current, female and minority non-equity partners do not want these statistics to be released. If so, what effect should their desires have on any decision by NALP? Any comments from non-equity partners? Others?

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