Creating Operational Gender Diversity in Legal Practice

One of the great ironies of the American legal system is it’s passionate championing of gender diversity, equal pay, and equal rights for women in the workplace. At the same time, as America has been vocal about the need for laws that govern and more closely monitor gender diversity and equal pay, legal environments – from governance to private practice – have failed to follow suit, or lead by example.

In other business sectors, there are many factors that lead to a leadership gap between male and female professionals. Cultural obstacles in specific industries that have been traditionally male-dominated (including IT, STEM, and skilled trades) have consistently contributed to a barrier for new career opportunities, and specifically advancement into positions of executive responsibility for women in North America. 

Part of the problem is tradition, and another equal part may be attributed to ignorance of the laws that exist to govern equal opportunity and anti-discrimination laws. However, in a legal environment, the contradiction exists where partners, investors, and board and committee members have an infinite amount of legal knowledge; yet, few apply it in their business models to bridge the gender gap. And it is not difficult to understand the persistent cultural and professional disparity. 

How Big Is the Problem for Female Law Professionals?

On April 19, 2015, Law360, a New York-based research and media outlet, reported the findings of a survey that involved more than 300 American law firms, called “The Glass Ceiling Report.” The study was conducted in 2014 to determine if women were dramatically underrepresented in leadership and executive roles within law firms in the United States.

The results of the findings are available online, but research data revealed that:

  • The size of the firm had little to no impact on the representation of women at the partner level or in executive committee roles. 
  • Men account for two-thirds of all attorneys in the United States.
  • Women account for only 20 percent of partner roles at American legal firms. 
  • The rate of leadership advancement and growth for female legal professionals is less than a 1 percent increase from 2013 to 2014, despite increased media and professional development attention to gender equity and workplace fairness. 
  • Less than 18 percent of equity partners are female. 
  • About 20.4 percent of partner roles in firms of >100 attorneys are occupied by women.
  • Roughly 21.1 percent of partner roles in firms of more than 1,000 attorneys are occupied by women.

Updated statistics were reported by the American Bar Association’s “Commission on Women in the Profession” report in 2016. In addition to a pronounced gender and opportunity gap in law firms, there is also a widening ethnic and racial gap emerging. Specifically, the American Bar Association draws attention to the number of African-American associates, which are declining in numbers at all levels of tenure. 

The report offers some additional valuable insights regarding opportunities and advancement of women within the American legal practice and educational institutions: 

  • Only 31.1 percent of law school deans are female. 
  • Only 37.5 percent of United States Supreme Court appointments are held by females. 
  • Less than 34 percent of Federal District Court Judges are female.
  • Out of a total of 18,006 State Court Judge seats, 5,596 positions are occupied by women. 
  • Men currently represent 73.9 percent of Federal and State Judge appointments in the United States. 
  • In 2014, family law attorneys and female professionals in equal roles, earned 83 percent of what their male colleagues earned, in similar practice and function. The average female lawyer earns 17 percent less than her equally educated and experienced male colleague. 
  • Of the 143 top chair or executive positions available at the top 100 U.S. legal firms, only 15 positions are occupied by female lawyers. 

When you review the statistics, you begin to draw a very accurate picture of the problem that starts far higher than at the individual law firm level. What is in practice at the Federal and State judiciary system is being closely mirrored and replicated statistically in law firms. The place where laws regarding equality, fair pay, and opportunity are drafted are currently representative of some of the largest examples of professional inequity for women in law. Which prompts the question: “Why is the legal community not setting an example for other industries to follow?”

Supporting Cultural and Professional Change

All law firms are innocent until proven guilty of deliberately creating a glass ceiling for female lawyers and legal professionals. Despite the statistical evidence of inequity at the highest levels of American legal practice, there are many organizations that have made a point to address the gender gap publicly, and successfully within their practices and organizations. 

Mentorship is something that is being addressed at leading law firms, offering equal support to talented female legal professionals as is provided in the stereotypical ‘boys club.’ The answer is not to create a female inclusive and male exclusive rebuttal, but to encourage mentorship based on talent and accomplishment, whether from male or female legal professionals. 

A benefit to large firms that have prioritized gender and ethnic diversity resides in public satisfaction and public relations. Large corporate clients that are implementing gender parity want to see the same principles adopted by suppliers and service providers. Large firms that address the issue may not only find themselves capable of recruiting exceptionally talented female lawyers, but new business and public favor. And that is very good for the bottom line and long term growth strategy for legal firms.

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