Equality before the law, also known as “equality under the law,” is a principle that establishes that human beings should be treated equally under the law. In other words, the law must guarantee that no individual or groups of people should be discriminated by the government.
Ironically enough, the legal sector happens to be one of the least diverse professions in the nation. Women in particular are highly underrepresented in this space. This is concerning, especially as data from the American Bar Association shows that women have made up over 40 percent of law school students for more than three decades, and have closed in on 50 percent over the past two decades.
However, the recently released 2017 Law360 Glass Ceiling Report indicates that women continue to be under-represented at all levels of a typical law firm. Law360 surveyed more than 300 U.S. law firms about their overall female headcount numbers as of December 31, 2016. The results demonstrate only marginal growth, with less than a 1-percentage point for female representation at all attorney levels since last year’s survey.
The statistics highlighted in this year’s Law360 report are alarming and should cause concern amongst U.S. law firms and attorneys. For instance, Law360’s survey reveals that women make up only 34.8 percent of total attorneys at the law firms surveyed, only slightly higher from 34 percent the year before. Men, on the other hand, make up more that 65 percent of attorneys at the firms surveyed.
Another major cause of concern is that female equity partners remain under 20 percent. It’s interesting to point out that women made up 23 percent of all law firm partners surveyed, but their representation is much higher among non-equity partners. Women account for 30 percent of non-equity partners.
These most recent findings have been of particular concern for Anne Urda, Law360’s Editor in Chief. Anne mentioned that Law360 started conducting annual surveys to determine if progress for female attorneys has been made over the years.
I had the opportunity to interview Anne to learn more about the report’s most recent findings and to get her opinion on the statistics.
Q: According to data from the 2017 Law360 Glass Ceiling Report, women are underrepresented at all levels of a typical law firm. Why do you think this is the case and what specific actions should be taken to help combat this?
I don’t think there is one answer to this question. I think that law firms can be entrenched places and it’s really hard to move the needle. Of course, law firms can be better in terms of creating more opportunities for women, both informally and formally. Mentorship programs, for example, are a great starting point. I also think that many law firms that do succeed in female representation offer flexibility and have created situations where females feel supported by the firms.
Q: The percentage of women equity partners at top ranked law firms is just under 20%, which is only a bit higher from last year. Do you think that firms that focus on building a clear pipeline to equity partnership for women help increase the number of women equity partners?
Yes, we’ve seen a direct correlation between firms that commit to building a pipeline for women equity partnership and their representation. In many ways, the equity partnership is the ultimate glass ceiling for women in law.
But again, we have only seen modest growth over the years. Women equity partnerships accounted for 19.3 percent last year and now it’s just fewer than 20 percent, so we are seeing minimal growth in terms of top leadership positions at the firms surveyed.
I’d like to think that in the coming years we will see more growth, but this is the fourth year we have been doing this report and we are still seeing very little growth – it’s been less than 1 percent. This is especially shocking because firms are aware of these issues. Many firms have created women leadership initiatives and have formed groups, but people really need to see retention among female associates.
Q: What are the biggest issues facing female attorneys today?
Based on the 2017 report itself, breaking into the equity partnership is very difficult for women. I also think that another issue is that a lot of time you see women having to leave or go in-house. I think that women are constantly faced with a trade off in the law profession.
Q: What’s the career path for women who can’t break the glass ceiling?
We’ve seen a lot of women go in-house recently. The idea behind going in-house is there is a better life to be had when you are part of a general council’s office. Hours tend to be better and work tends to be better,.
Q: In your opinion, what is the most striking piece of information listed in the 2017 Law360 Report? Why is this issue so relevant?
Again, less than 1 percent of overall growth is really shocking. I do feel that we are in a day and age where we are seeing progress in various ways, but this statistic is pretty stagnant. We all went into this year’s report thinking we would see a big difference. The results are surprising, even for us.
Q: According to the 2017 Law360 report, firms with the highest levels of female equity partners focus on building a clear pipeline to equity partnership for women and offer benefits like schedule flexibility and mentorship. How important is mentorship when it comes to retaining top-performing female attorneys?
I think that mentorship is key. It’s very important for young female associates to see women at the partnership level. We kept hearing from the people we have interviewed the importance of mentorship and how crucial it is for firms to support female attorneys.
Q: Do you think the under-representation of women lawyers is mostly a result of gender bias, or is it related to other factors?
I think it’s a variety of factors. It can’t be attributed to one thing, as there are firms we see that are doing many things in this area to help combat this issue. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to change some of these patterns.
Q: What actions should every law firm take to increase the number of female attorneys at every level?
Flexible work arrangements have had a big stigma. It’s important for firms to create a culture where things like this are more accepted. What you typically see in the best law firms is the commitment to gender diversity from the top down. It’s important that the leadership committee is practicing this.
Q: How will law firms facing gender bias suits filed by female partners be affected in the future? Do you think this will help increase the number of female attorneys at major firms?
One of our stories actually looked at this in relation to Greenberg Traurig, which had been faced with a discrimination lawsuit a few years ago. This firm saw a 20 percent jump in their female ranks post lawsuit. This was compared to a 6 percent jump in the male ranks at the same time.
Certainly, this shouldn’t be something that stops firms from promoting women. We have seen many lawsuits around gender discrimination though, and this should be taken seriously. Raising awareness is part of the battle.
Q: Do you think that more female attorneys should speak out and have their voices heard when it comes to combating gender bias? If so, what are the best ways to address this issue?
Yes, of course I think more women should speak out. Often time’s firms aren’t even aware of what is going on, so any voice will always help. However, it’s important to realize that females are in a tough position. Many of these women could be scared about what expressing their concerns might mean for the future at a firm. Yet firms also have the responsibility to give women outlets to express themselves in a comfortable manner if they do experience gender bias.