Women account for more than 52% of law students in American law schools. But women remain underrepresented among lawyers in private practice. According to a survey by Law360, women make up fewer than 24% of law firm partners.
This is important. Partners make the policy decisions for law firms. They also make hiring and firing decisions. They even have input in which cases a firm takes.
Law firm partnerships can also open doors to bigger opportunities. Corporations often draw their in-house counsel from outside law firms. State and federal government agencies often hire high-profile partners for jobs as regulators, departmental managers, and even cabinet secretaries.
Most importantly, politicians often pick law firm partners as judges, prosecutors, and legislative counsel to help make and enforce laws.
Here is a quick overview of the current state of female representation in law firms.
Representation of Female Lawyers
The number of women studying law has increased steadily since 1869. That year, Lemma Barkaloo became the first woman admitted to a U.S. law school.
In 2016, women finally reached parity with men, making up half of all law school admissions in the U.S.
But despite equal representation in law schools, women have not reached parity in private practices. As recently as 2020, women still only make up about 38% of lawyers in law firms. That same year, fewer than 24% had reached a full partnership with an ownership stake in their firms.
Possible Explanations for Underrepresentation
It’s less than clear why women are underrepresented in private law firms.
Contributing factors may include:
Inherently Biased Metrics
Many of the metrics used for partnership offers depend on traditional measures of a lawyer’s value. Existing male partners tend to emphasize the same metrics they met to reach partnership status, such as:
- Hours worked
- Revenue generated
- Clients originated
These metrics tend to favor the existing structure.
Specifically, male partners tend to give greater opportunities to male associates who work the way they did. Male in-house lawyers tend to send work to other male lawyers.
The lack of interpersonal relationships with male partners and male in-house lawyers inhibits upward mobility for female lawyers. If they cannot get the hours, revenue, and clients of their predecessors, they tend to stall out before they reach partnership status.
Lack of Mentorship
Another factor that inhibits upward movement is the lack of mentors who provide meaningful guidance through the law firm’s partner track. Female associates may stall out before they reach partnership because their firms have no female partners.
Without guidance, women tend to get lost in the shuffle.
Many women find a work-life balance that keeps them happy. But this balance might not meet the partnership committee’s expectations.
Partners typically invite new partners who mirror their own experiences. They believe that working long hours, weekends, and holidays shows a commitment to the firm that “deserves” an invitation to become a partner.
Female lawyers are not unemployed. Their underrepresentation in private practice might instead indicate they chose a different path.
Legal employment comes in many forms, many of which may provide greater fulfillment than private practice.
Lawyers can work as:
- Public defenders
- Public interest lawyers (like environmental lawyers)
- Government agency lawyers
- Legislative counsel
- Judicial staff
- Law school professors
- In-house corporate counsel
These jobs often provide greater opportunities for women than private practice positions with comparable pay. In many cases, these jobs provide more regular work hours and greater job security than private practice.
Solutions for Underrepresentation in Private Practice
Law schools have plenty of highly qualified female lawyers entering the profession. As entrenched male partners retire, these women will take their places.
But ensuring fairness also requires law firms to take proactive steps. Providing mentors to young lawyers, regardless of gender, will help all lawyers. Reevaluating the partnership track criteria will also give law firms a chance to remove inherently biased metrics that obscure a lawyer’s true contributions.