June 2016 Bar Bulletin
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June 2016 Bar Bulletin

Challenges for Women in Private Practice:

Results from the NAWL 2015 Survey

By Jaime Drozd Allen


By Jaime Drozd Allen

The National Association of Women Lawyers recently updated its survey on women in the law. It is the first survey measuring the number of women in various roles in private practice since 2006.

While one would expect that the last decade would show great gains for women in the law — with the rise of women’s initiatives, focus on the attrition of women, and implementation of a wide variety of programming that disproportionately and positively impacts women — the survey evidences a discouraging stance for women in private practice nationally: There has been little to no progress and the number of women, at varying positions in law firms, is statistically stagnant.

Here in Seattle, the Mother Attorneys Mentoring Association of Seattle (“MAMA Seattle”)1 is a 10-year old organization committed to the advancement of mother attorneys in the law. A large portion of MAMA Seattle’s membership is in private practice, making this seeming stagnation of grave concern, and of great personal impact to our membership.

Many of the issues facing women — part-time schedules, after-work commitments at odds with childcare, and inherent, institutional biases against women — impact all women, but often impact mother attorneys to an even greater degree. While the statistics are disheartening, MAMA Seattle envisions itself, along with its partner bar organizations such as Washington Women Lawyers, its fellow minority bar associations, and the dynamic, progressive law firms in Seattle, as part of the solution to this problem.

The Problem

For more than 15 years women have graduated law school in parity with their male counterparts, yet in private practice women continue to lag at every milestone and marker.2 About 47 percent of associates entering law firms are women.3 But, this is the last point where women attorneys will see near equality with their male peers.4

Despite being equally as successful as their male peers in college, law school and entry-level private practice positions, women attorneys who enter private practice face a distinct disadvantage that is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. Women are far less likely to rise into the higher positions within law firms and are destined to earn less for their efforts.

After entering private practice, the next marker for women is the transition to non-equity partner status where women representation takes a nose dive; they comprise only 28 percent of all non-
equity partners.5 To put this in context, even though women enter law firms at nearly equal rates as men, by the time non-equity partnership arises, women have gone from 47 percent to 28 percent of what is, theoretically, the same group.6

The outlook for women continues to be more difficult the higher in the partnership ranks they rise; women comprise only 18 percent of equity partnership positions.7 And, even for those who become equity partners, women earn 80 percent of what a typical male equity partner earns, despite working more hours.8 This is a decrease of 4 percent since 2006.9

Men also outpace women in rainmaking credit: 88 percent of the top 10 earners at law firms are men.10 For AmLaw 100 firms, only 9 percent of the top 10 revenue-producing lawyers were women.11 Not a single law firm responding to NAWL’s survey reported having a woman as its highest earner.12

This all matters because NAWL concludes that in general “law firms that do not manage their talent pool with a critical level of care and attention are squandering expensive resources and may be putting their future at risk.”13 NAWL’s challenge to increase the number of women equity partners is not only a gender issue, but one of “human capital development” in the service-driven legal profession.14

Moreover, studies “prove a clear business case for gender parity,” demonstrating that women generally only leave law firms “after all efforts to succeed have failed, and demonstrate that when women do leave, they are generally successfully employed elsewhere.”15

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