Bias remains a persistent issue in law firms despite efforts to promote equality and diversity in the workplace. Women continue to face challenges in securing leadership positions, earning promotions, and receiving equitable compensation. This article explores the barriers women encounter in law firms and offers practical suggestions for reducing bias and increasing transparency in performance evaluations. It also emphasizes the importance of engaging men in the conversation and encouraging women to advocate for themselves.
Gender Equality In The Law Firm
As national conversations about pay equity take place, every day more female lawyers are asking questions about the fairness of their pay and calling us to see how they can act to address it.
However, too often these conversations take place only among women. Particularly in the legal profession, where men make up the vast majority of bosses and leaders, men need to join this conversation.
Law360’s 2022 Glass Ceiling Report found that “women represent about 39% of attorneys in the U.S. today, but only about 24% of equity partners in private practice.” Meanwhile, a survey in early 2023 of over 200 female lawyers by legal industry data provider Leopard Solutions reported that women make up only 17% of managing and co-managing partners at the top 200 U.S. law firms.
Despite closing the pay gap, female law firm partners are paid substantially less than their male counterparts. According to a 2022 Partner Compensation Survey put out by the legal recruiting firm Major, Lindsey and Africa and Law360 Pulse, the average male partner’s compensation is 34% more than the average female partner’s compensation.
One breakthrough of note for women: the role of general counsel at Fortune 500 companies. In 2022, women made up nearly two-thirds of such general counsel appointments, according to a report by the management consulting company Russell Reynolds Associates.
Many men are committed to gender equality, and many have acted on this by working to minimize their own biases while supporting and advancing the careers of individual women. However, we have seen huge gains in pay and promotional opportunities for women who have committed male sponsors. It is important to celebrate this and to encourage other men to repeat it.
We need everyone—men included—to be aware of how their own biases can play out in the workplace and of what specific steps they can take to chip away at the glass ceiling.
Barriers To Success For Women In Law Firms
A number of recent gender discrimination class action lawsuits illustrate that women in law firms face additional hurdles not encountered by their male colleagues.
It is disappointing that true gender equity is still so far away, particularly within a profession responsible for upholding the rule of law. However, several recent initiatives indicate that the profession as a whole is engaged in a conversation about improving gender diversity.
Various legal groups are focusing on increasing transparency, mandating that leadership ranks include a specific percentage of women, and engaging men in women’s issues.
It is also important for women themselves to question how discrimination and bias could be affecting their opportunities for advancement and compensation.
Most firms are not transparent about how personnel decisions are made, and many women are being deprived of hard-earned compensation without their knowledge. Female lawyers should learn what they can about who makes pay and promotion decisions and the criteria used. Women are then in the best position to advocate for themselves and ensure they are getting the proper credit for their work.
In general, law firms credit and reward the revenue a lawyer generates – through business generation and, to a lesser extent, through billable hours. Women often reach out only when they have a specific reason to question how their efforts are being credited and rewarded – and whether their male colleagues are receiving greater credit for doing a lot less. Through the course of the representation, however, these women often learn that they have been earning less for years.
How Can Law Firms Help Ensure that Performance Reviews Are Not Affected by Discrimination and Bias?
The best way to do this is to establish consistent and clear metrics for evaluating employees. By requiring that evaluation recommendations and decisions be explained and justified relative to clear metrics, employers make it less likely that decisions will be made on the basis of unarticulated factors, including discrimination and bias.
A negative review should not be justified on the basis that an associate should, for example, “do more business development.” Instead, the employer should be specific and provide certain metrics. Tell her to “speak on at least four panels this year,” or “write at least two articles,” or “join at least one board of directors.”
It is also important to ensure that the same metrics are applied consistently among male and female attorneys. Establishing and communicating clear, consistent metrics can minimize this risk of discrimination and bias.
Law firm advancement and compensation can be complex, and it is important for lawyers to understand how such decisions are made so they know what they need to do to succeed and how best to advocate for themselves.