The Gender Pipeline Problem at Law Firms

By Erik Sherman, Special to Big Law Business

When people say Big Law has a gender diversity problem, they typically point to the scarcity of chairwomen, or to the equity partnership ranks themselves, where only 18 percent are women.

But what about in middle management, a potential talent pipeline for top leadership positions to be filled in the next decade? The question surfaced in late January when BakerHostetler appointed Joann Gallagher Jones managing partner of its Atlanta office and Big Law Business sought more information. The answer proved hard to come by.

“I don’t think anybody has statistics on the regional leadership positions,” said Marsha Anastasia, president of the National Association of Women in Law.

Barbara Leff, communications and publications manager for the American Bar Association’s Commission on Women in the Profession, said information about gender diversity at the regional management level is “hard to come by.”

Last month, Big Law Business reported on a group of women who manage law firm offices in Chicago but looking at a national level was more difficult. An informal analysis of the ten largest U.S. law firms by revenue in the AmLaw rankings suggests that regional management remains mostly male. All but two of the firms — White & Case and Skadden Arps — either provided numbers or confirmed information pulled from firm websites.

Because Kirkland & Ellis does not have regional managing partners, it was not included in the list. The other 9 firms had a total of 116 U.S. offices and 23 female managing partners, which means that 19.8 percent of all the positions are filled by women.

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Those numbers look good compared to the general state of the industry: NAWL’s latest figures show that 18 percent of equity partners at AmLaw 200 U.S. law firms are women. The number was 16 percent in 2006.

Still, there was a great deal of variation among the law firms. For example, Jones Day has the highest number of women in managing partner positions at 7 of its 17 U.S. offices, or 41 percent.

Yvette McGee Brown, partner-in-charge of diversity, inclusion, and advancement at Jones Day, said that her firm takes “great pride” in the diversity at the managing partner level. (The firm uses the term partner-in-charge.)

“It’s the philosophy of the managing partner and the culture of the firm that allows women to succeed,” Brown said. “Our managing partner … [is] really extremely supportive of women and leadership and having women at the table. His philosophy allows women to see other women in leadership. Creating the culture that allows women to really succeed, that just breeds success.”

But at the other end of the spectrum, neither Baker & McKenzie nor White & Case had any women as regional managing partners.

“Baker & McKenzie has a history of women in leadership roles, including the first-ever woman chairman of a global law firm,” the firm said in a statement for this article, “and women continue to lead practices, client teams, offices and other groups across our organization. Like many law firms, we are taking concrete steps to ensure that women are better represented among our lawyers and in our leadership.  Currently, 40 percent of our lawyers globally are women, and more than 40 percent of our 2015 and 2016 new partner promotions in the US were women.”

White & Case did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

The overall numbers in the top firms surprised Joan Williams, director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law.

“I had begun to get the impression that more women were being named managing partner on the grounds that they were so good at managing people and this required people skills,” Williams said. “It’s been very well documented that there are very low proportions of women on executive and compensation committees. I thought there was more progress toward gender equality in the managing partner position, but maybe that’s just not true.”