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April 29, 2010 12:57 PM

The Plight of the Female Partner, by the Numbers

Posted by Zach Lowe

The general theme of a big conference starting in Philadelphia Thursday is this: How can female in-house lawyers push firms to promote female lawyers and generally create gender equity in the legal profession? And that is a tall, tall order, according to the results of a survey of 700 female law partners at regional and international firms released this week in conjunction with the conference, reports The Legal Intelligencer, an Am Law Daily sibling publication. 

We all know women are underrepresented among law firm partners. But the results of the survey still surprised many of the in-housers gathering for the American Bar Association's Women in Law Leadership Academy, according to the Intelligencer. Among the results that caught our attention:

• Of the 700 respondents, 7.9 percent have been deequitized, most often because their firms wanted to increase profits per equity partner or because their own billables and client origination numbers dropped.

• A whopping 55 percent said they were occasionally or frequently denied their "fair share" of client origination credit.

• Two-thirds said they are uncomfortable appealing compensation decisions.

• About 30 percent said they were subjected to intimidation, threats, and bullying when they did express disagreement with firm decisions on pay. 

Read that last line again. Thirty percent of respondents said they had essentially been threatened after expressing some sort of disagreement over compensation policy. That's a huge number. 

Some of the in-house folks attending the leadership academy were also surprised that only 2.2 percent of respondents reported that clients routinely choose which lawyers at their firms get to take over a client relationship when a key partner retires, the Intelligencer reports. About one-third of respondents said their firm does not have a consistent approach to choosing a successor partner; about 30 percent said the retiring partner gets to make the pick. 

This is an area in which in-house counsel see an opening to promote women partners, the Intelligencer says. In-house lawyers should push for a role in choosing successor partners and agitate to make sure the right partners get credit for client origination, those in attendance in Philadelphia said, per the Intelligencer.

The survey was administered by the Minority Corporate Counsel Association, the American Bar Association's Commission on Women in the Profession, and the Project for Attorney Retention at the University of California Hastings College of the Law.

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Those numbers are essentially useless without a comparison to male partners. I would wager that the percentages would be similar regardless of gender.

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