Women attorneys are leaders in their practice fields, in their families and in their communities – but not in their law firms. Only about 18 percent of equity partners in major law firms are women, according to the American Bar Association’s 2017 survey. That’s remarkably little progress since 2006, when 16 percent of equity partners were women.
Another sobering statistic: even “women-friendly” firms that recognize the importance of offering benefits like parental leave and flexible working hours have largely failed to promote women to leadership roles. Of the 50 firms cited in Working Mother’s Best Law Firms for Women 2017 only 20 percent of all equity partners, on average, were women – the same as the last two years.
So, how can more women ascend to the top ranks of major law firms? One initiative that bears watching is the ABA’s Resolution 113, which urges law firms and corporations to create more opportunities for diverse attorneys at all levels, and calls on clients to direct a greater percentage of the legal services they purchase, both currently and in the future, to diverse attorneys.
Since passage of ABA 113 in September 2016, a growing number of Fortune 1000 companies have pledged their support, including Walmart whose general counsel, Karen Roberts, has been one of the leaders in promoting this initiative. Recent corporate additions to the pro-diversity list include HP, MetLife and Facebook, which now require 33 percent women and ethnic minorities on its outside law firm teams. It is unfortunate that we need a resolution to tip the scale on these inequities but at least this resolution serves to get to the heart of the issue. The power or equity in a firm has always been and always will be driven by who controls the business, and this Resolution goes to the heart of that issue.
In addition to addressing this push from clients, Big Law firms should look closely at their internal policies and practices to see how they can better tap the diverse pool of legal talent in their firms. Along with offering family-friendly work-life policies, major law firms should offer a clear path to equity partnership, along with mentoring and coaching support for the firm’s future leaders, specifically as it relates to learning how to capture business. Both women and men like to know the ground rules for moving up in the firm, and that there is a level playing field on all levels.
The most important step in advancing gender parity – and one that is often not discussed in legal article or blogs – is the importance of fostering the marketing and business development skills that bring in new clients. A woman who is seen as a “rainmaker” is far more likely to be considered for an equity partnership than one who plays a supportive role to her colleagues. Having the economic power that comes with a robust book of business is the key to break through Big Law’s glass ceiling. If women lawyers continue to focus on that conversation, the numbers will follow.