Legal Industry News

October 24, 2012

NAWL Report Finds Discouraging Trend for Women Lawyers in Big Law Firms

The National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL®) and The NAWL Foundation®  this week released the results of their seventh annual Survey on Retention and Promotion of Women in Law Firms.

The Survey is the only national study of the nation’s 200 largest law firms which annually tracks the progress of women lawyers at all levels of private practice, including the most senior positions, and collects data on firms as a whole rather than from a subset of individual lawyers.

“We are disappointed that women lawyers are still not reaching the highest levels of big firm practice or leadership in significant numbers,” said NAWL President Beth Kaufman, Partner at Schoeman Updike & Kaufman LLP in New York. And the pipeline of women available for advancement may be shrinking: for the second year in a row, the proportion of women entering big-firm practice has decreased. If this trend continues, it could trigger a downward spiral for women in the profession—we could see fewer women senior partners and law firm leaders in the future, and thus fewer role models and mentors for succeeding cohorts of women lawyers. 

“The Survey has repeatedly found that law firm structure has important effects on women’s career paths,” said Barbara Flom, author of the Survey Report and Secretary of The NAWL Foundation. Women have a notably greater chance to become partners in one-tier firms than in two-tier firms. Moreover, women are increasingly clustered in positions – such as staff attorney, counsel, and fixed-income equity partner – with little opportunity for advancement or participation in law firm leadership. It is particularly troubling to find that women constitute 70% of staff attorneys, a low-status, non-partnertrack role, and that many of these women have been practicing law for more than a decade. 

The Survey once again found that women’s compensation lags men’s at all levels, although this year the gap between male and female equity partner compensation has slightly narrowed.  NAWL Foundation President Stephanie Scharf, a Partner at Scharf Banks Marmor LLC in Chicago, who founded the NAWL Annual Survey, noted that “the gap between male and female compensation at the equity partner level does not correlate with male/female differences in billable hours, total hours or books of business, begging the question of how firms actually set compensation for their partners.”

Highlights of the Survey include:

• Female flight from big-firm practice starts early and accelerates over time; the only countervailing trend is in the lower-status staff attorney role, where women are an increasing majority.

• Women are substantially more likely to reach the equity partner position at one tier firms; they are least likely to reach the equity partner position at two-tier
AmLaw 100 firms.
• Women’s median compensation lags men’s at all levels, with the greatest discrepancy at the equity partner level, where women typically earn only 89% of what men make. 

• Women’s median billable and total hours generally lag men’s at all levels; however, for nonbillable hours, women above the associate level record significantly more hours than men. Pro bono hours are typically negligible for both men and women above the associate level. 

• Women partners are credited with a smaller median book of business than men, even though their business development efforts may be substantial. • The gap between the median compensation of male and female equity partners cannot be explained by differences in billable hours, total hours, or books of business.

• Women still typically hold only 20% of the positions on a firm’s highest governance committee, and only 4% of firms have a woman as the firm-wide managing partner.

Since 1899, the NAWL® has been committed to fostering diversity and advancing women in the legal profession. NAWL is the only national women’s bar association with individual and organizational members nationwide, including law firms, law firm attorneys, corporations, in-house counsel, government attorneys, law schools, and law school professors.

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