Gender Equality’s Top Ten

1030719_people_3.jpg Along with, presumably, the rest of Yale Law School’s alumni, I received an e-mail yesterday afternoon from Yale Law Women (YLW), a student group, listing the “Top Ten Family Friendly Firms.” This is not the first time that YLW has put together this list, but as far as I’m aware, it’s the first time they’ve sent it around to all alumni. YLW lays out the rationale for the list as follows:

YLW believes that the Top Ten List will be a catalyst for substantive change. Firms now have an opportunity to compare their policies to those of their peers. Practicing attorneys can use the List to advocate for improved work-life balance, and current law students can better assess their future employers.

This is not the first time we’ve seen law firm rankings employed in an effort to diversify the legal profession; last year, Law Students Building a Better Legal Profession released a report card on diversity in law firms (about which Frank Pasquale blogged here). While I find their goals noble, I wonder how successful these “listing” tactics are; i.e. do top 100 law firms really improve their diversity efforts in response to student generated lists? How far can studying and publicizing this problem take us? Will the “best and brightest” law students listen to their consciences rather than their wallets when choosing firms? With those questions in mind, I was curious about two apparently novel tactics that YLW is using: rewarding, rather than shaming, and actively distributing the list.

Instead of focusing on shaming those at the bottom of the list, YLW released only the Top Ten firms’ names and results (though I couldn’t find these results on the website). This approach is likely to be more appealing to the law firm audience, but I query whether rewarding will inspire more change than shaming. The reward tactic also gives law students who would work only at the most family-friendly firms a convenient short list (with, for example, only two New York law firms, including my former firm, Debevoise & Plimpton). But there are often other factors that influence the job search (for example, I chose Debevoise because of their international arbitration practice, and I’m not sure their absence from a “family friendly” short list would have altered that decision). And the “reward” approach leaves the calculations for policy comparison up to law students looking for jobs with or lawyers already working for firms outside the “top ten”, based on information that may not always be readily available.

The active distribution of the list adds an interesting twist, providing free advertising among a presumably desirable viewing audience of law students and lawyers. While again it’s not clear whether this list will be dispositive in many career choices by the recipients, it could play a factor, and perhaps that possibility is enough, particularly in the lock-step world of big New York firms, to inspire further efforts to diversify.

In any event, the depressing end to the story is that we’ve got a long way to go, baby. The YLW website lays out some disturbing statistics from the Vault Top 100 firms, most notably that women comprise 44% of associates but only 19% of partners at these top firms. While 96% of the firms surveyed have flexible or part-time work policies, only 7% of associates and 4% of partners are availing themselves of these program — and my guess is that the vast majority, if not all, of the part-time workers are female. The one bright piece of news is that the average paternity leave is 8 weeks — half as much as the average maternity leave, but still a major step towards destigmatizing parental leave. While I laud YLW for their efforts to prompt change, I worry that they are but a drop in the bucket of the profound structural change required to realize gender equality at top law firms.

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