Women in Law Firms: Why is Progress So Slow?

iStock_000018130893XSmallBy Hua Wang (Chicago)

How do law firms distribute billing origination credit and how does the distribution affect compensation and the advancement of women lawyers to positions of real power and influence in their firms? What steps can law firms take to develop fair and equitable compensation, origination credit, and client succession policies that will help women lawyers to advance and succeed?

As women lawyers become more senior, they experience an increasing shortfall in income compared to male attorneys, and higher attrition rates. Despite the commitment by firms to advance women lawyers, women represent only 16% of equity partners nationwide. These lawyers hold an ownership interest in their firms and occupy the most prestigious, powerful and lucrative positions.

The under-representation of women among law firm equity partners means fewer women on the compensation committees. According to the 2010 American Bar Association survey study “New Millennium, Same Glass Ceiling” [PDF] of nearly 700 women law firm partners, about half of the respondents had one woman on the committee. One-fifth had none. Another fifth had two women. When women are not part of the dialogue and the decision-making body that charts the future direction of firms, the chances are greater that the policies and practices implemented will be less responsive to the career needs of women lawyers.

Women and Power

According to the survey, the top three factors for compensation decisions or promotion to equity partner are: revenue collected, billing origination, and billable hours. Individual cash flow metrics weigh heavily, while institutional investments, such as contributions to the firm’s human capital and associate development, are given little weight. The underweighting of institutional investments has a particularly deleterious effect because women, especially women of color, are often expected to make more institutional investments than men. These non-billable contributions help build a strong firm culture and should be both recognized as valuable and taken into account in compensation decisions.

Very few women serve on the powerful compensation committees, which make the decisions. 70% of respondents say there was either no woman or only a token woman on the compensation committee, and the lack of female representation led to implicit bias. Research shows that a token woman on a committee of men negatively affects both the woman herself and her ability to influence decision-making.

People automatically prefer people like them. They feel more comfortable with them, remember their positive traits while forgetting their negative ones, and favor them in distributing rewards. Men are thus often given the benefit of the doubt. It is thus important to be in the inner circle, to know and be known. While not all white men are in the “in crowd,” they are more likely to have political relationships with powerful partners. In-group favoritism can have a profound effect on who gets access to the necessary information through their informal networks.

Taking Credit

As for origination credit, 55% of respondents said they had been denied their fair share of origination credit. Minority women partners were more likely to participate in successful client pitches, but not receive origination credit. In all top firms, the expectation of topnotch legal work is completely assumed to such a degree that client management becomes the differentiating factor in evaluations. Women partners’ compensation is negatively impacted by their exclusion from rainmaking opportunities and a proportionate share of the financial rewards associated with successful client pitches. One respondent said, “Women are not groomed in the same way men are at the firm for business development… You have to be in the boy’s club to get the origination, which is really the way power is measured at the firm.”

Thirty percent of respondents reported that they had been subjected to intimidation, threats or bullying when they challenged the allocation of origination credit. The lack of credit for rainmaking adversely affects the prospects of women for firm leadership and compensation. Origination credit and compensation criteria must be transparent so that women lawyers know exactly what they need to do to reach certain compensation levels.

The emphasis on billable hours leads to the hoarding of work, with the consequent failure to match work to the attorney and the relevant skill set, as well as who can provide high-quality legal work in the most cost-efficient fashion. Moreover, the most-hours-wins approach puts female partners at a disadvantage, since most married female partners have working husbands. In contrast, most male partners have stay-at-home wives who can take care of household chores and bear most of the childrearing responsibilities.

There is a severe lack of objectivity and transparency in existing law firm compensation systems and most of the negotiation surrounding origination credit occurs out of sight. In a profession in which 90% of women lawyers report having encountered gender discrimination (according to research by Mary C. Noonan, Mary E. Corcoran & Paul N. Courant), it is not surprising that many talented and educated women lawyers leave large firms to work in-house, at smaller law firms, or exit the legal profession entirely.

The creation and implementation of fair and equitable compensation systems is crucial to encourage women to stay in the profession, which in turn will increase the percentages of women in the equity partner ranks and law firm leadership.

0 Response

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    Mayes and Baysinger’s book, “Courageous Counsel” points out a good technique for addressing this situation–corporate clients encouraging or pressuring outside counsel to hire and assign women to handle their company matters. It’s worked for DuPont and Allstate, among others… And with more women in the GC/C-suite, this moment in time has the potential to be a tipping point.

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    This is the Call To Action approach that was initiated by companies like DuPont and Sara Lee in the last decade and joined by more than 90 Fortune 500 chief legal officers. For more information, see I talk about that in my book Best Friends at the Bar: What Women Need to Know about a Career in the Law and on my web site blog at It is an effective tool, but it is only one approach. Law firms need structural changes to address these problems for the benefit of the women lawyers, the competitive advantages of law firms and the quality of legal services.

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    What was most compelling to me about this study was the fact that 30% of women partners indicated they have been subjected to intimidation, threats, or bullying to back down after they disputed the allocation of origination credits. This will be the subject of a talk I’ll be giving for women lawyers at the New York City Bar Association on January 17: Communicate for Impact: Using “People Styles” to Hone Your Communication Skills (& Get Results). For more information visit: