Career Development

Surprisingly Little Has Changed for Women at Big Firms

Editor-in-Chief Anna Urda discusses Law360’s annual survey on women in the profession. The biggest surprise? How little upward movement there’s been.

CCBJ: Let’s start by talking about why Law360 started this survey.

Anne Urda: It started five years ago, and what we really wanted to look at was whether firms were making meaningful changes to improve gender equality – or just paying lip service to the idea. Many of them talk a big game about promoting women, and there was genuine curiosity about whether it was true.

Before we get into the results, can you tell us about your methodology and approach to conducting the survey?

Basically, we surveyed the top 300 U.S. law firms. In order to qualify, you had to have 20 attorneys or more, and in terms of the response rate, we got about 88 percent back from the top 100 firms, and about 81 percent back from the top 200 firms. That’s a pretty high number.

How do this year’s results stack up against last year’s, or against your first survey five years ago?

They’ve remained remarkably similar, which is a problem. In all of the categories we’ve looked at – equity partners, non-equity partners, female attorneys overall – there’s been less than a percentage point of growth in each of these areas. Statistically, that’s a flat number. It’s hard to read the results as positive, and I think firms still have a long way to go if they want to really make sure that women are represented at all levels.

That’s unfortunate. Have you changed the survey’s approach at all over the years?

No, not much, because you want an apples-to-apples comparison each year. In the early years, we didn’t focus as much on equity partners versus non-equity partners, but now we do, because what we heard was that a lot of women who are partners were being put into the non-equity category – but all the power is in the equity partnerships. And this was the first year that we looked at minority female attorneys specifically. Usually we collect diversity data in a different survey, but this year we decided to collect it at the same time.

What’s been the most surprising thing about the survey results?

How little change there’s been. You look at where we started five years ago and where we are today, and there’s only been about 3 percent incremental growth. Like I said, it’s hard to read those numbers as anything but flat. It’s shocking to all of us here, because firms really are talking about this, and they do seem committed to promoting women. So it’s interesting that the numbers don’t bear it out.

Are there any firms that stand out as doing things well?

Definitely. Littler Mendelson has 30 percent female equity partners, which is one of the highest percentages. Fragomen is another one that has about 40 percent. So yes, there are firms that are making great strides and have honestly followed through on their commitment to reaching gender parity in these upper echelons.

Is there anything else that those firms have in common?

It’s not a situation where it’s all employment boutiques or all immigration firms, or anything like that. But I think what they do have in common is that they’ve created programs and an atmosphere that really does work hard to give women opportunities to succeed. I think there’s been this idea that the problem will just work itself out, because more and more women are graduating from law school, so the numbers are in our favor in that sense – but unless you actually make a serious commitment to creating programs and tracking assignments, you’re not going to see a huge difference.

What do you think the driving force has been at firms like at Littler Mendelson or Fragomen? Do you think it’s been client driven, or is it about having the right women making those decisions – or the right men?

All of the above. Clients have played a big role. You definitely have clients that are demanding diverse pitch teams, which is key. Anything that the client wants, the firms are going to pay attention to. But you also have to have men that are advocating this idea as well, because they are still the dominant drivers of law firms. So if you don’t get men on board, you’re not going to see a big change.

Is there anything that has dramatically changed in the nature of the responses you’re getting?

Sadly, not really. I think that people are more open to talking about this issue, this year especially. It’s hard to tell how much of that is tied to the #MeToo movement, but we are certainly seeing more conversations and more honesty in terms of what women experience at major law firms. We’re also working on a satisfaction survey, where we’ve polled a lot of people about various related issues, including sexual harassment. I think you’ll see a lot more women speaking out, because I think they understand that in order for the industry to change, people have to know what’s happening.

Do you provide the firms with their results?

Yes, we double- and triple-check the numbers with the firms, so when you think about it, they’re putting their best foot forward. Since they’re self-reporting, these are probably their rosiest numbers – and even with that rosy outlook, it’s still pretty disappointing.

What kinds of trends are you seeing among women, overall, in the legal industry?

We did a big video, actually, talking to the female leaders of a few major law firms. It’s a pretty small group. What was interesting was just hearing the initiatives and programs that each of them is working on. What we’re seeing is that the whole dialogue is becoming more important, and also that once you have women in positions of power, they are creating positions for other women, and they are really understanding the work-life balance. I think you’re going to see a lot more of that, and I also think you’re going to see a lot more lawsuits, to be honest. Women are saying, “We have to band together. We’ve put up with this for a long time, and our only recourse, unfortunately, in some of these situations, is the courts.”

Anne Urda is editor-in-chief of Law360. She initially joined the legal news site in 2006 as one of three general assignment reporters, and now oversees all editorial strategy and day-to-day operations for a newsroom of more than 150 journalists. Over the past 12 years, Anne has become an expert on the intersection between business and the law, writing more than 2,000 breaking news and analysis articles on high-impact litigation, regulation, and legislation across a broad spectrum of practice areas, as well as developments and trends in the business of law.

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