Women and Minorities in Law Firms: The Glacial Pace of Change

Women have enrolled in law school in equal numbers with men in the United States for the last twenty years, and minority enrollment has also steadily increased during this period. Recent studies, compiled into a series of articles by New York Times reporter Elizabeth Olson show both good news and bad news about the current status of women and minorities in law firms.

Olson reports good news based on a study by the National Association for Law Placement (NALP). This study shows that women and minorities made small gains in 2016:

  • Women made up 22.13 percent of partners, up from 21.46 percent in 2015.
  • Minorities made up 8.05 percent of partners, up from 7.52 percent the previous year. Of these, 1.81 percent of partners were African Americans.
  • As associates, women held 45 percent of the positions, a slight decrease from 2009 levels. Minorities made up 22.72 percent of associates, up from 19.67 percent in 2009. African Americans made up 4.11 percent of associates, which is below their 2009 level.
  • Disabled lawyers are scarce.
  • Minorities are represented at higher levels among summer associates but are not hired into permanent jobs.

James G. Leipold, executive director of the NALP, notes that these averages mask big discrepancies by law firm size and geography, and these small gains reflect an “incredibly slow pace of change [that] continues to be discouraging.”

Why is progress so slow? Research on women lawyers probably holds answers for minority lawyers as well. Olson reports on a study showing that female law students are clustered in law schools with lower rankings. Because jobs with higher wages and long-term job security go to graduates of highly ranked, prestigious law schools, Professor Deborah J. Merritt of Moritz College of Law asserts that “women start at a disadvantage.” Olson also says women are “underrepresented in the higher echelons of law, including the ranks of judges, corporate counsel, law school deans and professors.”

The access to these highly ranked law schools is not a level playing field, either.

  • Fewer female college graduates tend to apply to top-ranked law schools, and, when they do, they are less likely to be accepted. Admissions processes at law schools remain murky and lack transparency.
  • Fewer women are enrolled in law schools that claim to place 85 percent of graduates in “gold standard” jobs (full time and long-term).

As noted earlier, the numbers of women and minorities promoted to partner remain low. Olson reports on another study showing that even when women do make partner at large law firms, there is a pay gap of 44 percent between male and female partners. While there are a variety of possibilities for why this discrepancy exists, two seem most likely:

  • There is an “old boys’ network” at play because of connections made at prestigious law schools that result in the hiring firm landing more deals for large accounts.
  • Men are better at receiving credit for originating big cases that impact annual compensation.

In fact, though, many female partners feel that those credits are awarded arbitrarily, often behind closed doors by all-male management committees, and do not accurately represent women’s contributions. Olson reports on three discrimination lawsuits against three different law firms by three different female partners with such claims. In these cases, the female partners complain of pay cuts, demotions, and terminations, even though they were top earners in their firms.

I suggest we watch for the resolution of these gender-bias cases for Kerrie L. Campbell, Traci M. Ribeiro, and Kamee Verdrager. Perhaps these lawsuits will force law firms to change their culture to become more transparent and equitable. Unfortunately, too often it takes a lawsuit to bring about change.

Anne Litwin, Ph.D. is an Organizational Development and Human Resources Consultant, Keynote Speaker, and Author of ‘New Rules for Women: Revolutionizing the Way Women Work Together.’

Originally published at annelitwin.com on February 6, 2017.

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