Today Am Law released an exhaustive report about female equity partners at major law firms — equity partners, not to be confused with non-equity partners (who are really glorified associates that firms slap with the “partner” label in order to look good when folks like BBLP or Jezebel come calling). The numbers aren’t going to surprise any woman who is seriously considering a career in law.

But just because they’re not surprising doesn’t make them any less depressing. From the report:

The data compiled for this first systematic look at the issue is presented below. When we reviewed it, two numbers immediately jumped out. First, women make up only 17 percent of partners at the firms we surveyed, even though they have represented about 51 percent of law school graduates in the last 20 years. Second, of the women partners who work at multi-tier firms, 45 percent have equity status. In comparison, 62 percent of the male partners at these firms have equity.

Retention issue much? At 17 percent, you’re talking about a serious glass ceiling sitting on top of women at major law firms. With spikes pointing downard. And holes so small you can’t possibly fit squeeze through them if you are carrying any extra weight, or a baby….

Here’s the thing: right now there are a bunch of 2L women trying to decide which firm to summer with. It’s real simple. Look at snapshots like the chart below and use it to help you make a decision:

You can also use tools like those created by Building A Better Legal Profession, which tracks diversity and pro bono work at major law firms.

Does this chart mean that, if you are a young woman lucky enough to land a coveted summer associate position at Wachtell, you should turn them down based on their embarrassingly low numbers of female equity partners? Well, yes, at least if you want anything to change. Wacthell wants the best talent, male or female. If they find they can’t get the best young female talent unless they start promoting older female talent to partnership, they will start doing it.

You know where we learned that move? From the lawyers who started Wachtell Lipton. Back in the day, white-shoe law firms were reluctant to promote and hire Jewish attorneys, so the founders of Wachtell went off to start their own firm. Keep your crumbs; I’m going to feed myself. Similarly, sought-after women don’t have to summer at firms that do not seem committed to promoting female equity partners. If you can get a job at Williams & Connolly, you can probably get a job at WilmerHale.

And when you call up W&C to inform them that you are turning down that offer, tell them, “I saw the numbers of your female equity partners, and I was disgusted.” Vote with your feet.

Meanwhile, at firms that have both equity and non-equity partners, it’s apparently pretty hard to get a share of the profits unless you have a set of testicles:

The rate of female equity partners at the multi-tier firms was all over the lot — ranging from a high of 25 percent to a low of 8 percent. At most of these firms, the rate of women equity partners was in the teens (two firms had either 20 percent or more women with equity; seven firms had ten percent or less). At virtually every two-tier firm, the “percentage of male partners who have equity” was higher than the “percentage of female partners who have equity.”

The numbers are really an indictment of all the firms that adopt a multi-tier partnership structure. These structures allow firms to create two classes of partners — and to a shocking extent, one class is for men, and the sub-class is for women. Ms. J.D. explains:

Multi-tier refers to law firms where different partners are subject to different compensation systems. Equity partners draw from firm profits in proportional share. Service, income, and other non-equity partners are compensated like associates, not based on books or business of firm profits, but on hours worked or a salary structure more akin to an associate’s. Non-equity partnership often also lacks voting powers and management authority.

And the distinction between single- and multi-tier matters. More than a third of single tier firms had more than 20% female partnership compared to only 2 of the 51 multi-tiered firms surveyed. Read that again. See what I mean — this stuff is a big deal.

Back in, say, 1950, if you were a black person and had a choice of living Alabama or Chicago, you were probably better off in Chicago. Not that there weren’t horrible racial problems in Chicago, but at least you weren’t living in a legally segregated society. By the same token, if you are a female law student who is approached by a firm with a multi-tier partnership structure, RUN. Kick off your heels and sprint barefoot away from the interview suite until you reach a safe place.

Voting with your feet is a good start, but lasting change won’t start until clients begin to care. One hopes that day will soon come. Take a look at Perkins Coie, a favorite of the Obama administration. According to Am Law’s numbers, only 9 percent of equity partners at the firm are female. A multi-tier firm, where only 19 percent of women called “partners” at the firm have equity. For the male partners, 46 percent have equity. Those are the numbers you’d expect to see from one of the go-to firms for a liberal administration? Somebody get the White House Press Secretary, Robert Gibbs, on the phone — or on the Twitter machine, @PressSec — and ask him about that.

Because once big-time clients decide they would rather not be associated with firms that are reluctant to give women a piece of pie, change will come.

UPDATE: For some different viewpoints, see the comments.

Looking Into the Equity Box: Women and Partnership Status [Am Law Daily]
Just in Time for Recruiting: Real Numbers on Women with Equity [Ms. J.D.]

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