At law firms, equity partnership is the brass ring. And for women working in law firms, that brass ring has long remained disproportionately out of reach when compared with male peers. New data from the National Law Journal shows that this situation has not improved even as women have increased their presence and prestige within the legal community. According to the most recent NLJ 250 survey (which ranks U.S. firms by lawyer headcount), women represent just 15.1% of equity partners at 221 of the largest firms in the U.S, a number that has remained fairly static for the last two decades.
So what does it take to boost the number of women in the equity ranks? Last September, in a discussion of Working Mother Magazine’s annual list of the best law firms for women, we highlighted a firm that seems to have figured out one path to greater equality. Nilan Johnson Lewis, a Minneapolis-based general practice firm, has women comprising 37% of equity partnership ranks. The key to these impressive numbers, according to the firm, is a flexible, family-friendly work environment and a strong mentorship program. In other words, culture is key.
The National Lawyer’s research adds several more firms to this list: the immigration law firm of Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Loewy in New York, with 42% female equity partners, and the energy and mining firm of Jackson Kelly in West Virginia with 28.4%. Ice Miller (Indianapolis), Best Best & Krieger (California) and Ford & Harrison (California) also report that women make up more than 25% of their equity partners. Once again, culture is a key reason for the promotion of women. According to Ice Miller partner Brenda Horn, “Women felt accepted here.”
As the National Law Journal points out, all of these firms are either regional firms, like Nilan Johnson Lewis, or focused on a specialized area of law. Where are the big, general practice firms in the conversation? As that 15% statistic demonstrates, they are mostly not making much progress when it comes to gender equality in the equity partnership ranks.
However, buried in that bad news is a nugget of hope:
“Women are gaining ground at firms with high profits. Of 18 firms with profits per partner exceeding $2 million, 11 have equity partnerships that include more than 15 percent women…
What many of the high-profit firms share is the single-tier partnership structure. For whatever reason, women seem to fare better in one-tier firms. (According to our research, women make up 17.6 percent of the equity partners in single-tier firms, but only 14.7 percent in those with two tiers.) Women in two-tier systems tend to get pushed into the nonequity ranks, explained Elizabeth Tursi, the chair of Women in Law Empowerment Forum, a group that tracks women’s progress in the legal profession…”
Single-tier partnership is not a panacea, as even 17.6% is not representative of major progress, but it is a step in the right direction. As Tursi’s comments explain, nonequity partnerships may have a tendency to waylay women on their path to equity. This is important knowledge for law firms interested in promoting more women into their equity ranks, but are getting stuck on how to do so.
What is clear is that culture matters, but cultural change can be difficult to implement. Partnership structure, on the other hand, is a concrete factor that firms can isolate and address.
This is not to say all firms should adopt a single-tier structure. There are a variety of reasons unrelated to gender equality why law firms have chosen to migrate to multiple partnership tiers. The structure can be beneficial for firm leverage and profitability, as well as provide a means for developing top talent that may not yet be ready for equity partnership. But as these numbers show, the model is not without its problems. Knowing that multi-tier structures can have a negative impact on gender diversity may help firms make better informed decisions with respect to gender equality.
Posted by Emily Fisher