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Big Law Gender Bias Policies Net Women Paltry Gains

May 11, 2022, 1:30 PM

It seems every time I deliver a smidgen of hopeful news about female lawyers, I inevitably get knocked down.

I happily reported recently that the pandemic didn’t wreck the careers of women in jobs like law. Those in privileged positions were able to work remotely, balance—however imperfectly—the demands of family and work, and stay in the game.

Now, the not-so-cheery news: Though female lawyers toughed it out during Covid, they’re not advancing. Moreover, Big Law has been investing time and effort in the problem—and it’s largely been a fail.

Those are the takeaways from the newly released report from the National Association of Women Lawyers, which analyzes responses from 75 firms in the AmLaw 200.

Some of the findings are numbingly familiar: Women rarely break into the top 10 club of the most highly compensated members at their firms. And though they now comprise 47% of all associates, women represent only 22% of equity partners. (Stay tuned for more on this in our upcoming pay equity special report.)

And yes, women still face all sorts of gender stereotypes.

But what I find intriguing is that law firms are cognizant of these issues and addressing them in fairly sophisticated ways. In fact, the vast majority of firms in the study have adopted policies to correct biases in compensation and performance reviews.

‘Not Translating Into Results’

An astounding 89% of firms “look for patterns in compensation data to identify disparities,” while 66% track “who gets opportunities to pitch, speaking roles, and origination and other credit,” and over 50% keep track of how origination credit is allotted, “including how it is distributed among demographics.”

Firms are also on the alert for unfairness in the performance review process, because as anyone remotely familiar with gender biases knows women are typically judged on performance and “likability,” while men are evaluated by potential and a range of personality traits.

The report finds that 74% of firms say they “involve people trained to spot biases in the process, such as HR professionals,” 65% “consider performance and potential separately for each candidate,” and 64% “separate personality issues from skillsets for each candidate.”

All this time I thought law firms were clueless dinosaurs. It turns out they’re actually quite woke.

So what’s the effect of having these wonderfully progressive policies in place?

Essentially bupkis.

“Despite increased attention and investment in the advancement of women and diverse attorneys, there has been much less progress than might be expected or hoped for,” NAWL says in the report. That’s a polite way of saying firms are going through the motions while maintaining the status quo.

NAWL finds that performance reviews and promotions, succession, and compensation matters in Big Law continue to be riddled with bias. Some highlights:

  • Performance reviews: Though 99% of firms in the study have formal evaluation processes, “anecdotal data suggests that many continue to find the process of promotion to partner particularly opaque,” NAWL says. It also cites several studies finding women are judged much more critically than men: “This focus on flawless performance for women and potential separate from performance for men can lead women to experience greater barriers to advancement in law firms and beyond.”
  • Succession: Though “relationship partner transitions provide a significant opportunity for law firms to diversify the ranks of relationship partners,” only 39% of firms report having a plan—which means women and other members of underrepresented groups get lost in the shuffle. NAWL cites research that when women work in teams, observers rated them “as less competent, less influential, and less likely to have played a leadership role in the task at hand”—meaning their contributions are devalued and they’re likely to be overlooked as worthy successors of key clients.
  • Compensation: Women are paid less (female equity partners make 78% of what their male counterparts do), and it’s not because they work or bill fewer hours. However, women do have lower billing rates than men, tend to work on smaller matters, and often have their invoices discounted, “suggesting a devaluing of women’s work in law firms, both internally when setting billing rates and possibly by clients in requesting (and receiving) discounts on their invoices.”

After that depressing litany (and there’s more if you read the report), you have to wonder what’s next on the horizon. It seems bias is so entrenched (the word “devalued” is used repeatedly to describe female lawyers) that you have to do something truly radical to eradicate it—like implement a quota system on the executive committee, unionize Big Law, or send leaders to re-education camps.

“There are a lot of policies but what’s needed is more commitment,” says Venable partner Elizabeth Manno, who co-chaired the NAWL study. “Firms want to do the right thing but that’s not translating into results. We’re hoping to present more concrete action.”

To that end, NAWL lists a series of questions that firms should ask themselves and actions to take. Among the proposals: analyze compensation data more vigorously and more often; give more feedback to female lawyers and be more precise about what it takes to attain partnership; and create that succession plan you’ve been avoiding. It amounts to more rigorous examination of data, more transparency, more planning, and more mindfulness.

Perfectly reasonable proposals. But haven’t we seen variations of all this before? It seems there’s been volumes of research on gender inequality in the profession and reams of suggestions to fix the problem for at least two decades, and we’re still lost in the woods.

Peggy Steif Abram, NAWL’s interim executive director, isn’t quite as jaded. She said the suggested “tools” in the report “if fully implemented, would be impactful.”

“We also believe that a deep examination of law firm culture and structures will be needed to speed progress,” she added.

Well, that should be a cinch.

To contact the reporter on this story: Vivia Chen in New York at vchen@bloombergindustry.com

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