Close this search box.

Law Firms Still Failing to Close the Gender Gap

Law360’s latest Glass Ceiling Report (the “Report”) demonstrates that law firms still lag behind with respect to progress for women, with only incremental growth in the number of female lawyers in private practice.  The representation of women at different levels of a typical law firm has not changed in a meaningful way in the U.S. in 2020, increasing by only 1% or less at all levels since the prior year.  The Report collected data from approximately 277 law firms on the demographics of their lawyer workforce.

 Some key takeaways from the Report include:

  • Certain fields and practice areas remain male-dominated with female attorneys  particularly underrepresented (i.e., mergers and acquisitions; patent appeals). Additionally, women still struggle to find parity in the ranks of Fortune 1000 counsel, as well as earnings equity among Silicon Valley counsel.

  • Despite making up more than half of the students in law school classes, only 38% of attorneys at law firms are women.  While women represent 48.5% of law firm associates, they only represent 27% of all equity and nonequity partners, combined. Less than 25% of equity partners are women. Additionally, women make up just 30% of executive or management committees at U.S. law firms.

Women of color are significantly underrepresented and face additional barriers such as the lack of mentorship opportunities and being overlooked for choice assignments.  Despite making up 20% of first year law students, women of color represent only 9% of attorneys, 4% of all partners, and about 3% of equity partners at law firms.

Although law firms seem to be making efforts to close the gender gap by joining gender equity campaigns, launching initiatives to support female attorneys,  and devising ways to provide additional workplace support, the COVID-19 pandemic brought unprecedented challenges and new pressures on women. The pandemic intensified the struggle to balance work and family, and creating tensions that will likely be ongoing.

 Despite the lack of meaningful change, there were some highlights that signify a potentially brighter future:

  •  More than 20 law firms of the 277 law firms surveyed appointed a woman to a position such as managing partner, CEO, president, or chair for the first time.  Also, nearly 40% of those promoted to partner, equity or nonequity, during the past year were women, suggesting that firms will have increasing opportunities to improve the gender balance in their upper ranks if they can retain those women and support their careers.

  • Law firms are making inroads when it comes to hiring women and women of color; more than 45% of newly hired attorneys in 2020 were women and more than 16% were women of color. More than 30% of partners who found a new firm were women.

Still, the study showed that women are leaving law firms at disproportionate rates to men. Although women make up only 38% of all attorneys, 42% of the attorneys who left their law firms for any reason in 2020 were female.  Similarly, while making up only 9% of all attorneys, women of color made up 13% of the departures.  Women are opting to leave law firms for many reasons, including pay disparities, gender-biased work assignments, and being repeatedly passed over for promotions.  Also, the COVID-19 pandemic has magnified the struggle to balance a law firm career with caregiving responsibilities.

To address the ongoing gender gap issue, law firms are under pressure to set more ambitious hiring goals, create new initiatives to retain talent, and provide women with the opportunity to advance.  However, whether these efforts will make enough of an impact to create measurable change remains to be seen.

 This summary is for informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute legal advice. This information should not be reused without permission.