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September 2, 2010 6:00 AM

Looking Into the Equity Box: Women and Partnership Status

Posted by Vivia Chen

In the September issue of The American Lawyer, we consider a topic of great importance to women lawyers but one that law firms aren't talking about--the numbers of female partners at Am Law 200 firms who have equity.

The data compiled for this first systematic look at the issue is presented below. When we reviewed it, two numbers immediately jumped out. First, women make up only 17 percent of partners at the firms we surveyed, even though they have represented about 51 percent of law school graduates in the last 20 years. Second, of the women partners who work at multitier firms, 45 percent have equity status. In comparison, 62 percent of the male partners at these firms have equity.

This first chart presents information on firms with a single tier of partnership. We separated this group out from the multitier firms because, at one-tier firms, only one number is relevant--the number of women partners, period. Although it is presumably easier to make partner at multitier firms, the percentage of women equity partners is highest at the nation's most elite firms--those with single-tier, lockstep partnerships. At six of the one-tier firms included on the first chart below, the rate was 20 percent or more. This is a striking contrast to the data compiled from multitier firms, where only two firms (Littler Mendelson and Shook Hardy) broke 20 percent. (Note: Click on the charts to zoom in.)

One_Tier_Firms_090110DK

The rate of female equity partners at the multitier firms was all over the lot--ranging from a high of 25 percent to a low of 8 percent. At most of these firms, the rate of women equity partners was in the teens (two firms had either 20 percent or more women with equity; seven firms had ten percent or less). At virtually every two-tier firm, the "percentage of male partners who have equity" was higher than the "percentage of female partners who have equity." There a number of reasons for this, some of which are explored in the story from the current issue. But as long as it remains so, this issue will be at the top of womens' (and our) minds.

Two_Tier_Firms_090110DK

Source: The data used in the story and the attached charts come from questions asked as part of our 2010 Diversity Scorecard Survey (which was based on data collected as of September 30, 2009). We tried to compile numbers for the complete Am Law 100, but some firms provided incomplete
information, or information that was not consistent with our reporting.

CLICK HERE to read the story in the current issue of The American Lawyer.

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AmLaw, your survey is incomplete. It leaves out the fact that some firms such as Jenner have created a third tier of partnership that they can call "equity" for diversity surveys like this but then count the attorneys as non-equity for purposes of reporting profits per partner. I would venture to guess that jenner's equity numbers reported for diversity purposes would be lower if they used the same counting method as they use for reporting profits per partner.

Curious - why does anyone care about this? Are there similar studies about the % of women in MD positions at our nation's top financial instutions? Does anyone care how many women are MD's at Morgan Stanley? I assume the summer-end drought of news is driving this.

Curious -- is there anyone out there who is surprised by this? As a purchaser of legal services and a former non-equity law firm "partner", I will keep these stats in mind when I engage outside counsel. If they can't do better than this, I'll find a firm that can.

Where are the remaining firms? Is there a more complete survey? Why isn't LW included, for example?

The dearth of women partners in major law firms is the legacy of the antipathy to women lawyers going back to the 1950's when Sandra Day O'Connor could not get a law firm job. In 1972, a class action charging sex discrimination was brought against a number of large New York firms. That summer, one New York firm told its only female summer associate (out of a class of 18) that she would not be given an offer of permanent employment because the firm had "done it's bit" by hiring three women associates the previous year.

Opportunities for women in law firms have improved since then -- at least for young law school graduates. But hiring lots of women associates has not resulted in comparable numbers of women partners. Law firms seeking to improve their diversity by adding women partners might want to look "outside the box" to find the women who were shunned at graduation in the 1960's and 1970's in contrast to their classmates who are now law firm senior partners. Many of hese women made careers outside of the traditional law firm setting such as in government, in teaching, or in the judiciary. Some found their way to non-profits, corporations, or small firm practices. Many of these women have terrific experience, friends in high places, and wuold make great partners and mentors to young associates.

I appreciate that The American Lawyer is shining a spotlight on this issue. While women lawyers are making strides on a number of fronts, the advancement to equity partnership status in law firms continues to be a challenge. Without understanding the breadth and scope of where things stand, it will be impossible to measure progress. Thanks again for keeping this issue in the forefront!

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