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Women Make Legal Profession Gains at ‘Glacial Pace,’ Survey Says

Dec. 10, 2020, 3:19 PM

Women, and particularly women of color, are gaining representation in the legal profession at a “glacial pace,” according to a report by the National Association of Women Lawyers.

Women make up 21% of Big Law equity partner ranks, the annual report found. Of those, 86% are white and 14% are minorities.

The fiscal 2019 figures show little improvement since the association began collecting data in 2005, when women made up about 15% of equity partnership ranks, said Karen M. Richardson, the group’s executive director.

“It’s been more than a dozen years to see a five-plus percentage point change,” she said. “That’s pretty sad.”

The legal industry has been roundly criticized for years for poor levels of representation of women and minorities. Law firms have implemented goals and programs intended to even the playing field, but recent data has generally shown only limited success.

The findings of the NAWL survey, completed at least partially by 88 of the AmLaw 200 firms it went to in February, are consistent with a separate 2019 report. The National Association for Law Placement found that 20.3% of law firm equity partners were women and 7.6% were people of color.

“There are bright spots,” Richardson said. “The breakdown of new equity partner classes looks better. New client relationships look better. But the overall numbers aren’t changing.”

Women make up 31% of non-equity partners, the report found. Among those women, 83% are white and 14% are minorities.

The association also surveyed law firms on steps they’re taking to reduce bias and discrimination. Responses show many are “paying lip service” without making meaningful changes, Richardson said.

“As we move through the employment relationship to things like compensation, promotion, and assignments, we’re seeing fewer and fewer firms willing to put meaningful bias interruptions in place,” she said. “They don’t really do anything that’s going to take away discretion from the owners of the firm, the existing equity partners, who are a pretty homogenous group.”

Paula Edgar, a diversity consultant and partner at Inclusion Strategy Solutions, said one of the biggest barriers to change in law firms is a lack of clear accountability and follow-up on inclusion strategies.

“There’s still so much inconsistency,” Edgar said. “There will be momentum, but if the person who is supposed to be leading the initiative leaves, then it’s not ingrained into the core values and vision and mission of the firm.”

Edgar stressed that inclusion is not a one-size-fits-all issue, and that law firms must make sure their women’s programs are not “default white women’s initiatives.” Diversity should not be an afterthought, she said.

Richardson said it’s too early to know what impact, if any, the pandemic will have on the retention of women and people of color. She’s hopeful client pressure on law firms will prevent the attrition levels seen during and after the 2008 economic crisis, she said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephanie Russell-Kraft in New York at srussellkraft@gmail.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com;
John Hughes at jhughes@bloombergindustry.com

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