The Talent

January 13, 2012 6:57 PM

Women Partners: A New Benchmark

Posted by Aric Press

How many women make partner in The Am Law 100 and Second Hundred these days? I didn't know either. So I spent a couple of weekends with a four-year sample: our list of partners promoted since January 2008. Of the nearly 5,000 names, almost 1,500 were women, or 30 percent.

For me, that's an incredibly useful number. Now we have a benchmark against which we can track behavior in the big-firm community. To that end, we are unveiling a Women Partner Watch page featuring an interactive graphic on which we plot firm-by-firm promotions against the profession’s 30 percent standard. This isn't a measure of which firms say they're good for women; this is a measure of actual firm behavior. (On the same page, you'll find an accompanying story about this year's new partner class that in addition to looking at the gender breakdown, examines other trends as well.)

We start with the 97 firms who announced partner promotions effective January 1, 2012. In all 973 lawyers were promoted, 323 of whom were women. Or, roughly, 33 percent. We plan to update this page throughout the year. There undoubtedly will be some anomalies: firms with uncharacteristicly high or low percentages of promoted women in a given year. Over time we think those results will smooth out.

We reached the 30 percent benchmark by looking at promotion data from 179 of the Am Law 200 firms beginning in 2008. Our fact-checking showed that data to be a bit dirty so we opted not to publish a firm-by-firm report retrospectively. Also, we faced a "Boy Named Sue" issue. We counted conventionally male or female names—Joseph or Mary, respectively—by their normal usage. Unisex names required further checking: we looked up every Kelly, Kim, and Lee. 

We treated all partners the same whether they were promoted into the equity or nonequity ranks. We appreciate the difference, but our bright-line measure is aimed at counting heads and not assessing power, pay equity, or any of the other concerns that might be worthy of inquiry. (For an effort at tracking the female ­equity partner ranks, we point you to the annual National Association of Women Lawyers survey.) In our view, the legal profession is still in a transitional stage for women in large law firms, a stage at which the building of a critical mass of partners is important for and by itself.

Our measure is simple. Is it fair? We think so, even though there will be some carping. Some two-tier firms will be helped by their ability to promote women into the nonequity ranks; other two-tier firms will be harmed by their size and global reach, factors that may depress their scores. Some one-tier firms will benefit from the small size of their partnership classes, others will be hurt by systems that resemble nothing so much as trying to get a camel to pass through a needle’s eye. We will present the numbers and let the market judge them.

Over the last four years, the firms that met or exceeded the 30 percent standard varied in size, shape, and location. They included: Debevoise & Plimpton; Kutak Rock; Munger, Tolles & Olson; Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison; Sullivan & Cromwell; and Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr. There are at least three things to say about this group. First, it ends the argument that only supposedly nonelite firms can manage to promote women in serious numbers. Second, firms that work harder and smarter at building work environments that are friendlier to women’s concerns tend to have more success at retaining women. Third, past performance is no guarantee of future results; on the 2012 results, Munger, Sullivan and Wilmer all fell below the 30 percent benchmark.

A flextime work schedule that doesn't punish the women, or men, who take advantage of it seems to be one key to having women around long enough to get promoted. For example, at Deb­evoise, Kutak, and Wilmer, the firms have a history of promoting women while they were working part-time schedules, and several of them continued those arrangements after they became partners. "We wanted to create flexible tracks for lawyers without stigmatizing them," says Carol Clayton, Wilmer’s assistant managing partner. "We wanted to make it normal to see variation in the paths that lead to promotion. To do that, we had to get away from the pushed-off-the-cliff syndrome, the up-or-out system. We're saying to lawyers facing difficult choices that we want you to stay. And we mean it." According to Clayton, 10 percent of the new Wilmer partners made since 2008 had worked part-time.

It is a mistake for firms to think of this solely as a women's issue. Any successful solution will have to be embraced by men. Recently Debevoise organized a seminar led by three senior male partners to advise their juniors on the traditions they were inheriting and the lessons they’d learned. And David Jacobson, Kutak's managing partner, likes to refer back to his founding father. "Bob Kutak learned early that we had an extraordinary opportunity to hire outstanding women lawyers by making part-time and flextime schedules available," he says. "It was true 35 years ago, and it’s true today. This just builds on itself, for the firm, for the partners, for our business."

Which side of the 30 percent line will you choose? We'll keep track together.

Press, ALM’s editor in chief, can be reached at A version of this column appeared in the January 2012 issue of The American Lawyer.


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This is a fantastic example of using data to shine a light on the world. Firms can say what they like, but at the end of the day, the numbers speak for themselves. That said, this graphic could be much, much more powerful with a redesign so readers could more easily see the data without having to mouseover almost anything of interest, and interactivity was instead used to provide additional information and reporting (e.g., firms with part time programs, or tracking results over time). I'd like to see annotation in the chart for firms discussed in this article!

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