How Gender Bias May Be Costing Law Firms: Why Many Women Prefer Female Attorneys

Female law professionals have made tremendous gains in terms of representation at the largest law firms in the United States. Despite the increase in female law graduates, the number of senior level law-firm partners continues to trail behind male lawyers. In addition, a survey and review by Sky Analytics Inc., reported significant discrepancies in billing rates, between male and female law professionals. The data was collected after a review of $3.4 billion dollars of legal firm billing records, and 3,071 law firms from a variety of industry sectors, including energy, technology, manufacturing and family law. 

How big were the discrepancies? In one example, male litigators in Los Angeles (with more than twenty-five years of experience) charged 8.3% more than their female colleagues. On average the billing gap between male and female lawyers resulted in a 10% variance, with male lawyers routinely charging and being paid more for their services. In smaller firms, the billing variance was 12% less than male colleagues.

In an industry that is infinitely aware of the laws of bias and discrimination, it is hard to understand why female lawyers still face obstacles to advancement and income, when compared to similarly skilled colleagues. By employing fewer female law professionals, are firms limiting their ability to appeal to female clients, for commercial, or divorce and family law cases? We explore the potential missed opportunity that firms face, when they choose fewer female partners and legal counselors. 

Is It Biased That Many Female Clients Prefer Female Attorneys?

The gender of the legal counselor does not impact the quality of the case, or impact the successful outcome of representation. Any lawyer assigned to a client will do their due diligence to best represent their clients needs. However, in some cases, for very natural psychological and emotional reasons, a female client may prefer to deal with a female law team, rather than a male counselor.

Certain aspects of family law including divorce, allegations of sexual abuse or assault, or other sexual related trauma may preclude a client to discomfort, with regards to representation by a male counselor. Is it discriminatory that female clients exercise a preference for female legal counsel? Not if the client feels more comfortable dealing with a gender specific legal team, for reasons of comfort or emotional ease. In service to the client, they should feel a strong and safe rapport with whatever legal professional they choose to represent them; male or female.

“It shall not be an unlawful discrimination practice for an employer to hire and employ employees…on the basis of his religion, sex, or national origin in those certain instances where religion, sex or national origin is a bona fide occupational qualification reasonably necessary to the normal operation of that particular business or enterprise….” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(e)(1)

The same statement can be held true when it comes to female legal professionals of various ethnic minority groups. Representation by legal professionals who have a deep, cultural and ethnic affiliation with their client can be a necessity to establishing trust, rapport and in many cases, overcoming barriers to communication. 

While there was some progress in recruiting and retaining minority women in the law profession, the NALP report published November 19, 2015 revealed some disappointing data. In the “Women and Minorities at Law Firms by Race and Ethnicity - New Findings for 2015” report, it was revealed that the percentage of minority female associates had decreased significantly, and was at its lowest point of recruitment and retention since 2009. 

By overtly or inadvertently limiting the opportunities for female law professionals, firms are increasingly impacting their ability to serve clients with specialized cultural, ethnic or gender preferences. In 2009, the NALP study reported that only 6% of partners were minorities, and only 1.84% of partners were minority women. Orlando family law lawyers and firms in Miami represented the highest retention of female Latina law professionals, as did the Los Angeles and Orange County California regions. 

Gender Parity in the Profession of Law: A Positive Step in 2016

On March 9, 2016 a “Shark-Tank” styled event was announced by Caren Ulrich Stacy, the founder and CEO of Diversity Lab. The “Women in Law Hackathon” would be held, to gather ideas and presentations on how to best solve the problem with gender bias in the legal profession. A panel of judges will be present at Stanford Law School, on June 24th, 2016 where teams will present and pitch their ideas. Three top cash prizes will be awarded, which winners will donate to the non-profit organization of their choosing, one that is involved in advancing women in the legal profession. The awards are to be donated by Bloomberg Law. 

The hackathon is poised to address the problem of retention and advancement of women in the legal profession, and 54 American law firms signed up to participate. But regardless of who wins the coveted top three prize awards, the result of the “hackathon” is the reverberation of ideas, concepts and open dialogue about adversity, gender bias, and how women feel within their respective firms. Many legal professionals concur that the dialogue is difficult to address under other circumstances, but a healthy and educational exchange for both male and female law professionals. One that the organizers at Diversity Lab feel will stimulate significant organizational awareness and change. 

For more information about the “Women in Law Hackathon”, visit the website. 

The large event which has garnered sponsorship and support from large organizations including Microsoft™ and PepsiCo® will help to shine much needed light on the problem within the legal community, and the intended purpose is to offer more transparency to dispense with the double standard that female law professionals face. By focusing on positive actions from both male and female law professionals, the organizers at Diversity Lab hope to escalate some of the changes that they have witnessed in the profession, while inspiring a more productive dialogue, with real solutions to address the gap between equal talent, pay and senior leadership opportunities for female lawyers. 

Rather than focus on the inequity between male and female legal professionals, many organizations have inspired discourse to focus not on the historical problem of bias within the profession, but on solutions. By optimizing the diversity of gender, ethnic and experiential strengths of each lawyer, clients can be served better, in tandem with improved earnings for the firm. It’s a win/win.

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