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Study: Women lawyers not on same partnership track

Some local firms buck trend of management disparity

iStock image used with permission.

Many firms across the nation have created programs targeted to women that give more lenient maternity leave and reduced caseloads, but a new study shows women are drastically underrepresented in the leadership ranks of major law firms and paid much less.

The National Association of Women Lawyers reports that women account for just 15 percent of equity partners despite making up 50 percent of graduating law students. The percentage of female partners hasn’t changed in the last five years, according to NAWL President Dorian Denburg.

The NAWL study started five years ago and tracks the seniority moves of women in the 200 largest law firms in America. The study shows that women equity partners earn about 85 percent of their male counterparts.

“It’s a really startling, black and white pictorial of the decrease of woman the further up you go in the law firm food chain,” Denburg said.

Women comprised 34 percent of all lawyers in 2008, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Denburg said one of the causes of inequity is the growing use of contract attorneys for legal tasks that don’t make the best use of staff. She said half of the largest firms hire contract attorneys.

Maureen Alston, a managing partner with Harter Secrest & Emery LLP in Rochester, said her firm’s partner class was made up of three women, all of whom are mothers.

She said having a family can delay both men and women in their pursuit of making partner, but Harter Secrest has reduced caseloads for new and expecting parents and a flexible schedule. She said telecommuting and remote access have made it easier for parents of small children to stay on the partner track.

The pay system is also the same for everyone as they work their way up the chain. She said that’s more for the firm’s culture of teamwork and not because of gender equality.

“In our system, men and women make the same. There is no difference at all. We have a lock-step system,” she said. “We like to work as a team.”

She also said gender is not a consideration in hiring practices or in promotions.

“Not at all. What we think about is looking for the best lawyers in recruiting, and people who are the most qualified,” she said. “At the end of the day, we want to have the strongest candidates and give them the opportunity to succeed. … In our firm, women do not go off [partner] track. We don’t put them off the track while they’re heavily involved in raising young children.”

Alston said one of the reasons women also make less could be  because they haven’t brought in the same amount of originated cases. She said lawyers working in government, a corporation, or public schools and universities all are paid equally because it’s the law. Those at private firms rely on bringing in cases to make more money.

“It’s really a question of if men or women bring in more work,” Alston said. “I don’t know if it’s a question of the time they put in, or if women have less comfort in bringing in new business than men. I don’t see that at our firm. But I could see that in other firms. Some partners are making more because they’re originating more business.”

Denburg said NAWL is holding a summit Dec. 7 for 60 counselors and equity partners to refine its approach for best practices. She said it’s frustrating to see little change over the past five years since the study was created. But some good has come, she said. The organization wants to double the percentage of women who are managing partners to 30 percent by 2015, and those at the summit will be working on ways to get there.

“The studies have drawn attention and created conversations,” Denburg said. “We think that things can start to change if firms adopt best practices for leadership development, retention and compensation, and bring women into decision making positions and give them opportunities.”

Alston said many lawyers have left large firms to go to mid-sized and small firms in places like Rochester for a different lifestyle that’s more family friendly. She said looking at large firms, like those in the study, does not give the bigger picture. Alston also said that making partner usually takes about ten years, so change isn’t going to happen overnight.

“I think the change is coming,” Alston said. “It’s already here and I think we’re going to see it more and more.”