Biglaw, Gender, Partner Issues, Women's Issues

Is There A Business Case For More Female Biglaw Partners?

‘Out of balance’ is a type of balance, when you think about it.

ATL reader opinion was sharply divided over that recent law firm partner “Hang in There Baby/This Too Shall Pass” email. You’ll recall that the partner was seeking to reassure her younger colleagues who face the challenge of balancing the demands of the Biglaw grind against those of motherhood. Her message: eventually things will be better.

Only a few years ago, when the author was a new mother, she found herself “in the fetal position (ed. note: see what she did there?) on the kitchen floor so completely spent that honest to God I did know how I could get through another day.” Things improved; now the partner can promise her younger counterparts that “one day in the future,” when the kids1 can talk and brush their own teeth, “you will bake a pie and wear clean pants.” In between all-nighters prepping for trial, of course. While some found solace in this message, others found it to be cold comfort at best.

Let’s put aside whether one thinks the partner’s advice is uplifting or risible. For the sake of argument, if the legal profession — specifically law firms — is truly trying to foster the advancement of women attorneys, we can all stipulate that the effort is thus far a failure. What is going on when a fit of despair on the kitchen floor is such a “relatable” thing?

Earlier this year, the National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL) released its annual Survey on Retention and Promotion of Women in Law Firms. Each summer, Biglaw firms recruit 60% female and 40% male law graduates into their practices. Within a couple of years, the female majorities shrink and then disappear. So here we are: 64% of law firm staff attorneys are women and the equity partners are 83% men:

This visualization of the diverging career paths of the genders in law firms is as arresting as our old friend the “Bi-modal salary distribution of law graduates” and should be added to the “Charts Everyone Needs To Understand Before They Take The LSAT” file. In the words of the Harvard Business Review, “No area of the business world is more illogically gender imbalanced than law firms.”

Meanwhile, back in the business world, researchers at Catalyst found, on average, Fortune 500 companies with the highest representation of women board directors are attaining significantly higher financial performance than those with the lowest representation. In tune with those findings, a 2012 report from the Credit Suisse Research Institute determined that, among the more than 2,000 companies examined, those with at least one woman on their boards outperformed all-male boards in terms of share price performance. Piling on: according to new research from the University of British Columbia, women on corporate boards help companies strike better deals by bringing down the costs of acquisitions and avoiding costly mistakes that end up hurt shareholder value.

As for why the female influence yields such dividends, we’ll just step aside and do what those Smith College gals refused to do: let IMF chief and former Baker & McKenzie chair Christine Lagarde have a word:

If Lehman Brothers had been ‘Lehman Sisters,’ today’s economic crisis clearly would look quite different […] When women are called to action in times of turbulence, it is often on account of their composure, sense of responsibility and great pragmatism in delicate situations.

Mais bien sûr, Madame. So apart from issues of equal opportunity, social justice and gender one-up-personship, is there a “business case” for greater proportional representation of women in Biglaw partnership? NAWL asserts as much: “It is clear from our research over the years that when individual women lawyers advance and succeed, so too do their law firms and clients.”

So many factors affect a firm’s performance — from its size to its particular practices to the current economic environment — that it’s probably folly to try to measure any cause and effect of gender ratios. We decided to do it anyway.

So assuming “success” in the NAWL formulation holds its ordinary meaning of “money,” we thought to take a look at whether there was any correlation between the ratio of women partners among the Am Law 50 and those firms’ revenue per lawyer. Obviously Biglaw “partner” and Fortune 500 “director” are not functional equivalents, but interestingly, their relative proportions are interchangeable (17% for partners, 18% for directors). Here is a scatter plot for the Am Law firms along with highest and lowest scoring firms for compound annual growth rate for revenue per lawyer (per Am Law) and percentage of women partners:

Alas, it turns out that is no statistically significant correlation between the percentage of women partners and RPL CAGR, at least among this select sample. For a table with the full dataset for the entire Am Law 50, see the final page of this post.

Nevertheless, if we look at firms that perform (relatively) well by both metrics — including Kirkland, Simpson, Skadden — we see some of the most revered and relevant firms by any measurement. Do they know something the rest don’t?

Work/life balance and the advancement of female lawyer are key human capital issues permeating all aspects of legal industry. As it happens, today we’re rolling out a new subscription service, ATL Human Capital. (ATL itself will always be free of course.) ATL Human Capital will provide real-time updates that break critical news as well as monthly round-ups consisting of aggregation and insider analysis — a must-read for marketing, business development, and recruiting professionals. Learn more here.

1 “Kids”? Sorry we mean kid-singular. Because come on.

Read on to see a table with the full dataset for the entire Am Law 50…

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