On September 14, Law360 Pulse released its annual Glass Ceiling Report. The Report summarizes Law 360’s Survey of women in law firms for 2020. Every time I hear about one of these Surveys, I hope for once, it will reveal some real progress. But they never do: just like the Law 360 Diversity Survey results previously discussed, the Glass Ceiling results are discouraging. Not just discouraging. Embarrassing. It makes me mad. It ought to make us all angry.
The Survey headline: just as in prior years, women remain underrepresented at U.S. law firms, particularly in the partnership ranks.
- Women make up only 37.7% of attorneys, up 3.7 basis points in six years. SIX YEARS.
- Fewer than 25% of equity partners and one-third of nonequity partners are women.
- Last year, only 40% of partner promotions (equity/nonequity) were women. (In reality, only promotion to equity partner is a genuine partnership promotion. Nonequity partners are glorified employees)
- Women’s representation on law firm executive or management committees is only 30%, same as last year.
And for women of color, the results are even worse. In 2020, women of color represented only 9% of attorneys in law firms, 4% of all partners, and 3% of equity partners. Those results are identical to last year’s Survey.
I talked with Kerry Benn, Director of Series, Surveys, and Data with Law360 Pulse, about the 2020 Survey. Benn told me that despite the low number of women partners and associates, women routinely make up more than 50% of law school graduates. So it’s not a supply issue. (Women compose some 50.8% of the U.S. population, generally).
Yet, too many women still can’t get their feet in the door of law firms, much less advance when they get there. And firms SAY they have programs and initiatives to address the problem. But nothing changes. “The path of progress,” observes Benn, “is so slow. At no level of law firms has the representation of women significantly increased over the previous year.”
And by the way, thank God for surveys like this. They shine the light on what law firms are achieving as opposed to saying.
So what’s the disconnect? Time to face facts: there is a bias in law firm hiring. There is a bias in law firm advancement. Want proof: the Survey shows 42% of lawyers who leave firms are women. That’s a lot of talent. As I have talked about before, law firm policies and rules unconsciously or maybe consciously discourage advancement by women and minorities.
I’m sure some law firms will look at all this and say we are trying hard and “its just hard to turn the Queen Mary around on a dime.” But 6 years of next to no progress belies the notion that firms are really trying all that hard.
The Law360 Report itself put it well, “The industry has so far failed to show anything but modest progress, despite years of promises to improve the prospects of women in the profession.”
That’s the hard truth: it’s all been just talk by law firms. Most firms have yet to offer any real, lasting solution to diversity problems. So perhaps to a greater extent than just about every place in today’s society, law firms remain the bastion of white male privilege. Continuing to treat the problem with talk and empty initiatives ain’t going to change anything. As Albert Einstein reportedly said, “…insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” And that’s what law firms and, for that matter, the profession have been doing.
Frankly, there is no optimism that this will change unless, as I have previously argued, clients demand change and ensure it occurs both at the law firm and in-house levels. That’s why what in-house counsel like Tony West at Uber is doing is so important. As I previously reported, Uber demands such information from its law firms as:
- What is the promotion velocity in partnership and equity partnership tracks of women and diverse lawyers?
- What percentage of firm leadership is composed of women and diverse?
- What is the percentage of women and individuals from underrepresented groups in the firm’s representation of clients?
- What is the percentage of women and individuals from underrepresented groups on the firm’s governance committee?
- Where are they on the firm’s Executive Committee? The Comp Committee?
- How many women and individuals from underrepresented groups are practice group leaders?
- What percentage of women and individuals from underrepresented groups are billing patterns?
- Are women and individuals from underrepresented groups among the top law firm earners? Are they relationship partners?
Yes, inquiries and programs like Uber’s require clients to get more involved in law firm business than they have. Yes, that’s intrusive. Yes, law firms will howl. But nothing else seems to have worked. So maybe forcing firms to come up with solutions or lose business might move the needle.
Clients who profess diversity have to say to paraphrase Howard Beale, “we are mad as hell, and we aren’t going to take this anymore.” Till then, expect the same results.
Law360 collected demographic data from 277 U.S. firms representing about 110,000 attorneys, which included nearly 49,000 partners. Seventy-six percent of the top 200 firms by headcount in the Law360 400 submitted data. Of the top 100 firms, 84 submitted data.