Status of Women and Minority Lawyers

Status of Women and Minority Lawyers

The dramatic increase of women and minorities entering the legal profession over time has not translated into commensurate increases in their power and influence. Female and minority attorneys don’t make equity partner or reach the higher echelons in proportionate numbers as compared to their white male counterparts. Although women have specific issues related to their gender, on the whole, they fare better than attorneys of color

According to the 2012 NLJ250 survey, women represent just 15.1 percent of equity partners at the largest firms in the US. That number remained fairly static for the last two decades although substantial numbers of women graduated from top law schools and entered practice in large law firms during that time. Women constitute only about 18 percent of the members of governing committees, holding a firm-wide managing partner positions in only 4 percent of firms. Moreover, they are more likely to occupy lower status positions with diminished opportunity for advancement or participation in firm leadership. Women now comprise 26 percent of nonequity partners, 35 percent of counsel, 46 percent of associates, and 70 percent of staff attorneys/career associates at those firms. The percentage of women occupying non-partnership track positions is expanding rapidly, as is the number of law firms establishing that class of lawyers, now over 80 percent of the largest firms. Women lawyers’ median compensation also lags behind men's at all levels, with the worst discrepancy at the equity partner level, where women typically earn only 89 percent of what men make.

The 2013 Vault/Minority Corporate Counsel(MCC) Law Firm Diversity Survey showed that approximately on in eight attorneys promoted to partner was a member of a minority group, and they represented 6.29 percent of management or executive committee members, up from 5.42 percent in 2007.  While increasing, these numbers remain well below the more than 14 percent of law firm attorneys who are racial or ethnic minorities.

Research by the NALP Foundation for Law Career Research and Education indicates that an important reason fewer minorities and women enter the partnership ranks is that they are more likely to have departed from their initial firms long before reaching the stage when associates are considered for promotion. The  Vault/MCC Survey showed that, while 45 percent of law firm associates were female, almost 50 percent of associates leaving those firms were female.  Retention rates for attorneys of color, who make up 14.27 percent of law firm lawyers, comprised almost 20 percent of those leaving in 2012.

Furthermore, ABA and NALP studies consistently show that women and minorities are somewhat less likely to enter private practice than their white male counterparts and cluster in the lower paying arenas of ­government service, in-house, and public interest work. One barrier to success at major law firms is the issue of “personality fit” or comfort level, and the sense of not being “one of us.” Both women and lawyers of color find a relative lack of role models in the large law firm environment. Additionally, as they aren’t represented in the upper ranks, they don’t have much input in the important strategy and policy discussions that shape firm culture. Finding it difficult to thrive in a setting unreflective of their values and goals, these marginalized attorneys search for more supportive professional environments.

As women and minorities find law firm environments inhospitable, they flock to in-house law departments. In 2012, women held 21 percent of the general counsel positions at Fortune 500 companies, according to the Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA). There were 108 women serving as GCs in Fortune 500 companies in 2011, up 23 from 2009. Of the 47 minority general counsel at Fortune 500 firms, there were 28 African Americans, 11 Asian Americans, six Hispanic, and one each from the Middle East and Armenia. Even as women attorneys reach the higher rungs on the corporate law department ladder, however, they earn significantly less than their male counterparts, a new survey indicates. The “2013 Law Department Compensation Benchmarking Survey,” showed GC level women making approximately $150,000 less than male GCs, and female Deputy GCs earning about $70,000 less than their male equivalents.

Nevertheless, the growing number GCs with diverse backgrounds in Fortune 500 leadership positions may increase pressure on their outside law firms to do better in not only hiring, but also advancing their counterparts. In-house lawyers, as a whole, push for increased diversity of the legal profession. They challenge outside law firms vying for their work to identify the women and minority attorneys who will work on their matters and to specify their involvement. Mere “window dressing” will not do. One of the primary factors accounting for the lack of female and minority law firm leadership is lack of “big rainmakers” in their ranks due largely to the white male domination of corporations that comprise the pool of potential clients. Almost half of all large firms report no women among their top ten business generators, and another third reported having only one in that elite group. Perhaps the increase in diverse GC representation will ameliorate this disadvantage, as well.

Valerie Fontaine
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