Women in Big Law

This week the National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL) released its Survey on the Retention and Promotion of Women in Law Firms, which compiles data on the professional progress of women in the nation’s 200 largest firms. Most of the reporting on NAWL’s survey results has focused on the decrease in the number of female first and second year associates.  While the decline is only slight—47 percent of first and second year associates are women, compared to 48 percent a year ago—it is the first decrease since NAWL began reporting survey results in 2006.   NAWL speculates that the decline is attributable to changes in law school enrollments, where there have also been slight decreases in the percentage of female students.

The most interesting part of the report, however, discusses where women find themselves in the hierarchal complexities of today’s law firms.  As the NAWL survey points out, large law firms are no longer comprised of simply partners, associates, and a few of counsel.  Instead, firms are a mix of equity and non-equity partners, associates, staff attorneys, and of counsel.  Read on after the jump for sobering highlights about how women tend to fit into organizationally-complex large law firms.

*      In the firms surveyed, 55 percent of staff attorneys are women—the single largest percentage of women in any category of attorney practice.  By definition, staff attorneys usually are not eligible for partnership.  NAWL notes that most staff attorneys are not recent graduates whose job prospects have been affected by the recession, but that instead almost all staff attorneys graduated prior to 2007 and nearly half graduated prior to 2000.

*     Women constitute 34 percent of of counsel attorneys at the typical firm.  The NAWL survey confirms that the of counsel position has lost the prestige it once had.   Instead, firms tend to use the position for experienced associates who have insufficient business or are otherwise not considered “suitable” to become parter.  Of counsel is also increasingly a position that is occupied by former partners who have been de-equitized.

*     The survey discussed three partnership structures: one-tier, two-tier, and three-tier.  One-tier firms do not distinguish between partners; two-tier firms have income and equity partners; and three-tier firms have income and equity partners, as well as  “mixed” income-equity partners.  Individuals in this third category of partner are required to make a capital contribution to the firm but are compensated with an annual salary and a performance-based bonus instead of a share of the profits.  In addition, income-equity partners lack the governance rights or business authority of a true equity partner.   Of the firms surveyed, 28 percent were one-tier; 60 percent were two-tier; and 13 percent were three-tier.   Women comprise 18 percent of equity partners in one- and two-tier firms and 14 percent of equity partners in mixed-tier firms.  In the typical three-tier firm, five out of six income-equity partners are women.  When all three-tier firms are considered together, women comprise almost 80 percent of all income-equity partners.  NAWL notes that two-thirds of the lawyers in the income-equity category have been practicing between 12 and 31 years and thus are in what should be the prime of their careers.

* In the majority of firms surveyed, there are at most two women on the highest governing committee.   Nearly half of the firms have one or no women on the highest committee.

You can read the full NAWL report here.


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