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Women in the Law

Have Law Firm Structural Changes Created a ‘Pink Ghetto’? Study Raises the Question

Posted Nov 9, 2010 6:59 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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A new survey suggests that women lawyers have not benefited from structural changes in the nation’s largest law firms that created “nuanced stratifications” of lawyers.

An example can be found in two-tier and multitier partnerships, where women lawyers appear to be less successful than in one-tier firms, according to the survey (PDF) by the National Association of Women Lawyers and the NAWL Foundation.

Fewer women are equity partners in two-tier and mixed-tier firms than in one-tier firms, according to the survey of the nation’s 200 largest law firms. And in multitier firms, women are congregated in the lower tier of “fixed-income equity partners” who are required to contribute equity to the firm and are responsible for firm debts but don’t share in the profits.

Women account for 73 percent of these fixed-income equity partners, where compensation is usually based only on annual salaries and a performance-based bonus. “The phenomena of two-tier and mixed-tier partnership structures continue to have a negative impact on women lawyers,” the survey says.

Overall, women account for about 15 percent of equity partners, a number that has remained essentially the same for the last five years. They constitute 18 percent of equity partners in one-tier firms, 17 percent of equity partners in mixed-tier firms and 14 percent of equity partners in two-tier firms.

The survey also found that women dominate the ranks of staff attorneys. Women make up 60 percent of staff attorneys, the highest percentage of women lawyers in any category of practice. These lawyers are paid less than partnership-track lawyers with similar seniority and by definition they have little possibility of advancement.

“Since the widespread use of entry-level staff attorneys has only existed for a few years, it is perhaps too soon to predict that it is or will become a ‘pink’ ghetto,” the study says. “Nevertheless, it is a phenomenon worth watching, and further research into its uses and effects is warranted.”

The survey also found:

• Women are underrepresented in the highest ranks of leadership. Few firms have women as managing partners overall, although a number have women managing partners in branch offices. And in the average law firm, there are only one or two women on the highest governing committee.

• Women equity partners earned 85 percent of the amount earned by their male counterparts in 2010.

• Few women are top law firm rainmakers. Law firms were asked to identify the gender of their top 10 rainmakers. About 46 percent of the firms had no women in the top 10, and 33 percent had only one woman in the top 10. The reasons may be due to exclusion from rainmaking opportunities, lack of credit for participating as a team player in business development, and losses in disputes over rainmaking credit.

Also See

ABAJournal.com: "Do Reduced-Hour Workloads Derail Partnership-Track Careers?" (Podcast)

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