Have you noticed that women lawyers seem to be going solo at a faster rate than their male counterparts? We may start off as associates at Big Law, but we don’t tend to stay there. In fact, less than seventeen percent of female associates ever become equity partners in their firms. Only about four percent make it to the level of managing shareholder.
Law360 reported in April 2014, ”that among 250 of the largest firms in the U.S., most have an equity partnership makeup that is less than 20 percent women. Among partners, women are significantly better represented at the non-equity partner level, where they make up 28 percent, than at the equity partner level, where they only comprise 16 percent.”
I graduated from law school in 2006. Recently, two friends who graduated about the same time made shareholder at their respective firms: Allison Imber and Melanie Griffin, joining my friend Amber Davis, who made shareholder at her firm a couple of years ago. While I am extremely proud of these women for their accomplishments – and they are legal rockstars, believe me – they are, sadly, the exception and not the rule. For every Amber, Allison or Melanie I know, I know three or four women lawyers who either stay at their firms and never make shareholder or, more often than not, bail on Big Law and hang a shingle.
The ABA Commission on Women in the Profession‘s report in December 2013 showed that numbers of women lawyers in associate positions has fallen for four straight years. Meanwhile, the number of women choosing solo and small firm practice continues to rise. It does not take a genius to do the math. While all the statistics focus on Big Law, there is an obvious difference between men and women in our profession. Men still get a seat at the table in Big Law. Women, by and large, still do not.
I don’t think it’s just that women lawyers get “mommy tracked.” I think it’s more culturally pervasive. Women today expect to work outside of the home, and women who went to the trouble and expense of law school are insistent. I think it’s much more about Big Law protecting the way it has done business for the last hundred years than it is about whether the lawyer being bypassed is raising babies.
The National Association for Women Lawyers reports, “an enhanced focus on the challenges faced in achieving greater levels of inclusiveness and diversity, especially in private practice settings.” This was highlighted by the long-standing pay gap for women lawyers, the continued attrition of women from law firms, and the under-representation of women among firm leadership:
Law firms lose valuable women lawyers in whom they have invested substantial resources, and also lose women role models and mentors for their less senior women attorneys. In addition, the attrition of women partners from firms adversely affects clients, as they lose the services of talented and skilled attorneys with whom they have developed a close working relationship and who possess knowledge and expertise concerning the client’s business and legal matters.
By going solo, a woman lawyer gets to be an equity partner right off the bat. In fact, she gets to be the managing partner, too. And also the janitor, but I digress. The point is, women leave Big Law in droves in order to find personal and professional satisfaction. And ultimately, Big Law clients bear that loss.
What I am interested to see is what happens next. Big Law firms weren’t always big: they started out with one or two lawyers, like every other firm. As women leave Big Law increasingly not to raise a family but to start their own firms, the next Big Law firm is out there, just a baby firm waiting to grow. It may take twenty years or more for us to get there, but the women equity partners of the future are already out there, making it happen.
The women lawyers are coming, Big Law. Ready or not.
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