Hilarie Bass has reached the pinnacle of success in the practice of law. She just completed her term as president of the American Bar Association (ABA), having served in that role from 2017-2018. Since 2013, she has been co-president of Greenberg Traurig, which was ranked #14 by Am Law 100 in 2018. By most accounts, Bass is one of the most successful and recognized women in law. Yet, after more than 30 years at Greenberg Traurig, Bass is leaving to focus on a new venture: The Bass Institute on Diversity and Inclusion, which will address issues facing women and minorities in the workplace. The significance of Bass taking up this cause speaks volumes of its importance to the field.
In fact, the issues facing women lawyers was the focus of a recent ABA longitudinal analysis commissioned by Bass during her ABA presidency. The analysis focused on a year’s worth of scientific research on women leaving the practice of law, often during what should be the height of their careers. Bass asked, “Why are these women leaving in droves and is there anything that we, as a profession, can do?” Bass stated regarding the goal of the study, “Our hope is that we can come out of this effort with some specific recommendations to make sure that the playing field is as objectively even and meritorious for women as it is for men.”
The study, Achieving Long-Term Careers for Women in Law, collected hard data to get a research-based understanding of this trend. Findings from the study, which included more than 1,300 respondents from 350 of the nation’s largest law firms, were released at the ABA’s 2018 Annual Meeting in August. The study is instructive for both individuals and law firms. The loss of female partners not only results in a lost investment in developed talent, but also contributes to lost business attributable to senior attorneys at the peak of their productivity.
The study confirms that male and female attorneys have very different trajectories in the law. While law school classes have been gender balanced for more than 30 years, the study demonstrates that a “gigantic talent drain” follows thereafter, as women leave firms more often than men. Women make up 45% of associates, but less than 20% of equity partners. By the time women reach the age of 50, they are down to 27% of the total profession. As detailed in one of the reports, “[t]he figures for women of color are even more disheartening. White women make up 88% of all women equity law firm partners and nearly 17% of equity partners overall. Women lawyers of color make up 12% of women equity partners and only 2% of equity partners overall.” The report states, “If steps are not taken to change the current trend, the percentage of women equity partners will remain stuck at under 20% for decades to come and women will continue to be under-represented in leadership positions.”
The study also examined the potential causes behind the big picture and larger pattern. Based on the survey, compensation and opportunities for promotion indicated a clear gender divide in Big Law. For instance, 69 percent of male partners, but only 44 percent of women partners were satisfied with the firm’s compensation methods. Also, 71 percent of men but only 44 percent of women were satisfied with recognition they received for their work.
Finally, 49 percent of women attorneys reported they had been subjected to unwanted sexual conduct or contact, compared with 6 percent of men. About 74 percent of women attorneys said they had been referred to in demeaning terms, versus only 8 percent of men. Perhaps the most striking example of gender bias was that 81 percent of women said they had been mistaken for a lower-level employee, compared with zero percent of men.
These are important issues for the legal community, whether you are in Big Law, a smaller firm, or a sole practitioner. The statistics don’t lie, and they demand action.
The work that Bass commissioned during her term as ABA president demonstrates that there is much work to be done to improve gender parity in the legal profession. While we look forward to seeing what Hilarie Bass does next, it is important to continue the work that she spearheaded during her term as ABA president and maintain momentum towards long-term retention of women in the legal field.