Law360's Glass Ceiling Report: What You Need To Know

(September 13, 2021, 3:03 PM EDT) -- Law firms are facing renewed calls to step up their efforts on equity and inclusion. But when it comes to closing the gender gap, law firms still have a long way to go, our annual survey shows.

Law360's Glass Ceiling Report shows only incremental growth in the number of female lawyers in private practice in the U.S. Women are still underrepresented at U.S. law firms, particularly in the partnership ranks.

The COVID-19 pandemic also put new pressures on many women balancing work and family obligations, creating tensions that will likely continue through 2021 and beyond.

Law360's latest Glass Ceiling Report provides a data-driven view of female attorney representation at law firms in the U.S. at the end of 2020, a year when law firms began facing new pressures to promote equity at all levels.

Firms are stepping up and repledging themselves to the work of closing the gender gap, joining gender equity campaigns, launching new initiatives designed to support the careers of female attorneys, coming up with new work models, and finding ways to provide additional workplace support in the face of unprecedented challenges.

For most women though, the outlook still remains uncertain. 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.

And at the partnership levels, the ranks remain overwhelmingly male.

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Law360's annual report reveals that about 38% of attorneys and less than a quarter of equity partners at surveyed law firms are women — similar to last year's report.

Law360 collected data from more than 270 law firms on the demographics of their lawyer workforce.

The firms that responded to our survey include 84 of the 100 largest U.S.-based firms, as ranked by the Law360 400. More than 75% of the top 200 largest U.S. law firms by headcount participated.

And the results of our annual survey are clear: The representation of women at different levels of a typical law firm did not meaningfully change from the previous year. At every level, the representation of women increased by one percentage point or less.

Particularly among law firm partners, the gender gap stands in stark contrast to the share of women who have been prepared for a legal career. Women have made up at least 40% of U.S. law students for decades and now make up more than half.

But despite a packed pipeline of talent, women have long been underrepresented, and their numbers shrink dramatically at the uppermost tier of a law firm, dropping to less than a quarter of partners with a significant financial stake.

Several practice areas also remain male-dominated at many law firms, particularly at the top. Female attorneys are underrepresented in the ranks of lead advisers on mergers and acquisitions at major law firms, one recent study found. Women argue far fewer high-stakes patent appeals for corporations than their male counterparts.

For women of color, there are additional challenges, including being consistently overlooked for plum assignments and lacking important mentorship opportunities. Women of color have been speaking out about the barriers that remain to their advancement in the legal profession and urging law firms to finally make good on years of diversity pledges.

At U.S. law schools, women of color now make up 20% of first year law students. Yet at the firms surveyed by Law360, women of color represent only 9% of attorneys, 4% of all partners and about 3% of equity partners. Those results are identical to last year's survey.

Black women are less than 1% of equity partners at surveyed firms, just over 1% of nonequity partners and nearly 3% of nonpartners. Hispanic women similarly make up less than 1% of equity partners, 1.5% of nonequity partners, and close to 3% of nonpartners.

Asian women make up just over 1% of equity partners at firms that responded to our survey, just over 2% of nonequity partners, and nearly 6% of nonpartners.

Law firms are hardly the only members of the legal industry to show a lack of progress in closing the gender gap.

Women are still struggling to find parity in the ranks of Fortune 1000 counsel even with some modest gains in the past year. While there has been a recent uptick in female representation among Silicon Valley general counsel, male in-house lawyers still earn more on average than their female counterparts throughout the legal department.

The lack of gender diversity on the federal bench has also garnered renewed attention, with advocates pushing for more diverse nominees and judges themselves speaking out for increased inclusion.

Path to the Top

While law firms are inching towards closing the gender gap among the ranks of law firm associates, with women representing more than 48% of associates, according to our survey results, at the top rungs of the law firm ladder, the picture is starkly different.

Women represent 27% of all partners, equity or nonequity. Less than a quarter of equity partners are women.

The ranks of executive or management committees at U.S. law firms are also male-dominated, with women making up just 30% of members of those committees, a similar result to last year's survey.

Most firms that responded to our survey had at least some female representation on their top management committee, but few had anything close to parity.

There are, however, some positive signs that firms are pushing themselves to ensure women have opportunities to ascend the ranks.

2020 was a notable year at law firms for female leaders. More than 20 firms appointed a woman to a position such as managing partner, CEO, president or chair for the first time.

Also, nearly 40% of those promoted over the past year to partner, equity or nonequity, were women, suggesting that firms will have increasing opportunities to improve the gender balance in their upper ranks if they can retain those women and support their careers.

Finding and Keeping Talent

In order to make good on pledges to increase gender diversity, firms will have to not only set ambitious hiring goals for female attorneys at all levels, but also come up with new initiatives and approaches to ensure that women stay and have ample opportunities to advance.

When it comes to hiring, the firms that responded to our survey this year reported that more than 45% of attorneys who joined them in 2020 were women. More than 16% of attorneys hired were women of color. More than 30% of partners who found a new firm were women.

As some women's groups, bar associations and diversity professionals are pushing law firms to set ever more ambitious hiring goals, others are ramping up the pressure on law firms to face an ongoing and difficult problem. When women face what they see as insurmountable hurdles to advancement, they don't stay.

Women do tend to leave law firms at disproportionate rates to men. According to Law360's survey, 42% of attorneys who left their law firms for any reason in 2020 were female, despite the fact that they make up only 38% of all attorneys. Women of color were 13% of departures, while they make up 9% of attorneys.

Women with years of experience opt to leave firms for many reasons, a recent report commissioned by the American Bar Association underscored, including pay disparities, gender-biased work assignments, and being repeatedly passed over for promotions.

Women have also been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has intensified the struggle of balancing law careers with caregiving responsibilities.

The vast majority of firms that participated in our annual survey confirmed they have policies in place to support working parents.

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Almost 80% said they provide parental leave of at least 90 days. More than 80% reported having a written flextime policy that allows attorneys to work a flexible schedule, which can provide significant benefits for parents trying to balance work and family life. But firms may have to do more, and become more flexible, to avoid losing women as the effects of a public health crisis continue.

An Uncertain Future

Over the past year, many law firms have doubled down on their gender parity goals. They are relaunching initiatives and working to provide new support structures for women to build strong careers.

But whether the renewed focus, and those renewed efforts will finally push firms to make good on longstanding commitments, adapt their cultures, and deliver measurable change remains to be seen. For now, law firms are on notice.

--Editing by Pamela Wilkinson, Kerry Benn and John Campbell. Graphics by Chris Yates and Jonathan Hayter.

Methodology: Law360 collected demographic data from 277 U.S. firms, vereins with a U.S. component, or law firms with a substantial U.S. presence of at least 50 attorneys, on their attorneys by headcount as of Dec. 31, 2020, representing about 110,000 attorneys, including about 49,000 partners. Only U.S.-based attorneys were included in the survey. U.S.-headquartered firms had to have at least 20 attorneys to participate. Some attorneys declined to identify a race or ethnicity.

Seventy-six percent of the top 200 firms in the Law360 400 submitted data to our survey. Of the top 100 firms in the Law360 400, 84 submitted data.

Law360's data gathering methodology changed slightly in 2017 from previous years.

Law360 now collects data from law firms using the race, gender and ethnicity categories used by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in its annual Employer Information EEO-1 survey. We also have added an option for attorneys who decline to identify a race or ethnicity. This did not result in a significant impact to results for overall diversity levels at U.S. law firms.

In our analyses, the terms "minority" and "person of color" are defined as those who identify with one of any of these racial or ethnic groups: Hispanic/Latino, African American/Black, Asian American, Native American or Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander and two or more races.

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