Where are all the women partners at law firms? Half of all law school graduates are women, as are over 40% of law firm first-year classes. Yet women continue to be under-represented in partnership ranks. Women are the minority of both equity partners (19%) and non-equity partners (30%), according to the 2017 National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL) Promotion & Retention survey. Worse, in the last decade, NAWL’s survey has found very little change in these numbers, suggesting the pace of progress has stalled resulting in a wider gender gap in the legal field.

Consider the following NAWL survey findings:

  • In 2015 and 2016, firms added on average 15 new equity partners; of these equity partners, only five (33%) were women.
  • Men continue to dominate the top earner spots. 90% of firms reported their top earner is a man and nearly 70% have only one or no women in their top 10 earners.
  • Women hold only 25% of firm governance spots.

Dispelling the myth of the “gender ambition” gap, women express a desire to be promoted to partner level as much or even more so than men, according to McKinsey & Company research. Yet women continue to be underrepresented in these senior positions and, when they are promoted, under-paid.

As a former practicing attorney and current legal recruiter, I’ve had many candid discussions with attorneys, hiring managers, and diversity managers. These conversations offer important anecdotal insights that go behind the numbers in NAWL’s surveys, digging deeper into why firms continue to struggle with gender parity despite decades of initiatives to close the gender gap. Three key trends emerge:

  1. Lateral hiring perpetuates gender imbalance. Recruiting a diverse class is just the first step. Firms must also assess why their attrition rates are disproportionately higher for females than for male attorneys– and why male attorneys are more likely to be recruited as lateral hires rather than women. Women must also become more comfortable choosing to leave firms that do not offer pathways to promotion and proactively exploring lateral moves earlier in the career.
  2. Diversity statements are unconvincing to women. Firms have many of the right policies and programs in place but more needs to be done to translate stated commitments into measureable outcomes. For example, McKinsey found that while 87% of firms offer unconscious bias training, only 30% of firms mandate program participation. Additionally, women express reservation at taking advantage of programs like flextime because they worry these programs will hurt their advancement opportunities. Firms must foster a culture where utilizing these offerings is not only encouraged but expected.
  3. Law firms lack the gender-equality targets and senior leadership accountability. It’s difficult to make progress without clear goals to measure performance. For example, McKinsey found that while all firms track gender diversity in partnership elections, only 35 percent set targets. Part of the challenge is also a transparency problem. The majority of firms are reluctant to even disclose their salary figures to NAWL, suggesting the gap may be even more significant than NAWL can document.“Many lawyers believe that barriers have come down, women and minorities have moved up, and any lingering inequality is a function of different capabilities, commitment, and choices,” argues Deborah L. Rhode, the Ernest W. McFarland Professor of Law, the director of the Center on Legal Profession, and the director of the Program in Law and Social Entrepreneurship at Stanford University in a Washington Post think piece. Yet research continues to prove the opposite– and without clear targets to evaluate gender-parity at the equity partner levels, it is difficult to hold senior leadership accountable for the continued underrepresentation.

Research has long found that diversity – including gender diversity – drives productivity, improves decision-making and enhances organizational performance. In fact, as I discuss in my recent white paper on Women in Law, firms with the highest representation of women at the partner level also are the most successful.