Women in the Law

Women's Initiatives in BigLaw Are Abundant and 'Woefully Underfunded,' Report Says

In the last decade, women’s initiatives and women’s affinity groups have become a staple of BigLaw culture. The idea is to retain and advance women lawyers, who currently make up only about 15 percent of equity partners.

Are the efforts working? According to a new report (PDF) by the National Association of Women Lawyers, 97 percent of large law firms surveyed have such initiatives, but many of the programs lack the funding and targeted goals needed to make a difference.

More than 95 percent of law firms have programs dedicated to networking within the firm, and nearly 90 percent sponsor networking events for women lawyers and women clients. The programs were rated as among the most effective in meeting the mission of women’s initiatives by more than half of the respondents. Despite the favorable ratings, networking events “are at best indirect ways for firms to advance their women lawyers,” the report says.

Less often cited as most effective were programs for leadership training, offered by more than 60 percent of the surveyed firms, and programs focusing on business development, offered by more than 90 percent of the firms. Perhaps the rainmaking programming needs to be more systematic, the report says, and maybe the leadership training doesn’t have a straightforward focus on advancement.

The report cites two main “take-aways.” First, firms should be moving to the next phase, becoming more strategic in how they define their roles, the activities offered and how they define success. “There is an abundance of ‘soft’ programs—networking stands out as the prototype—and not enough programs targeting the factors that have a direct impact on advancement within firms,” the report says.

Second, women’s initiatives are “woefully underfunded.” Firms typically spend far less on women’s initiatives than the salary of a first-year associate, the report says.

ABA President Laurel Bellows issued a statement reacting to the findings. “These statistics confirm what women, particularly in large firms, already know, which is that women are not receiving the kind of support that translates into equity partnerships and true leadership positions,” Bellows said. “Hopefully, this survey will help us define a gender equity conversation that is serious and immediate with law firms in this country.”

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