Vault's Careers Blog

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Bullies, Bias and Other Barriers to Equality: Women Partners Confront Law Firm Reality

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Last week, the Project for Attorney Retention (PAR) and the Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA) released a report regarding the gender gap in compensation among law firm partners, “New Millennium, Same Glass Ceiling?“. The study has generated some buzz, both within and beyond the legal community (e.g., The Careerist: “Show Me the Money—Not Work/Life Balance,” and Newsweek: “Even Female Law Partners Suffer Wage Disparities“), though it seems that at least some of the surprised reactions are triggered less by findings that systemic problems in law firm compensation practices “open the door to gender bias” than by the discovery that women are really angry about it.

PAR and MCCA surveyed nearly 700 women partners who voiced “intense dissatisfaction” with disparities in pay and power. Because women, and especially minority women, are underrepresented at the upper levels of the law firm hierarchy,* they have limited means to address these issues. As noted by Veta Richardson, MCCA’s executive director and co-author of the report: “With few women on compensation committees and in top management positions, women law firm partners’ ability to influence compensation decisions and address salary differentials is limited.”

While some of the problems discussed are structural (e.g., questions as to whether the right factors are used to determine compensation), others are behavioral. According to the report, “Roughly one-third of the women surveyed reported having been bullied, threatened or intimidated out of origination credit, a key factor in setting compensation.” Moreover, a majority of the minority partners surveyed said “that they had participated in client pitches that yielded work for their firms—but that they were excluded when the time came to do the work.”

The study’s findings undercut the common arguments that women are paid less because they work less, generate less business or focus more on family. Fortunately, the report also outlines a series of best practices to help firms establish fairer compensation systems—systems that, the authors conclude, will better serve the long-term interests of law firms in the 21st century—including ways to improve transparency, redesign origination credit and introduce “checks on bias and in-group favoritism.”

MCCA, PAR and the ABA Commission on Women are also compiling a companion report titled “Sustaining Pathways to Diversity—A Survey of Women Partners on Law Firm Compensation and Recommended Approaches for a More Equitable Playing Field,” which is expected to be released later this summer.

— Posted by Vera Djordjevich, Vault’s Law Blog

Follow Vault’s Law team on Twitter: @vaultlaw

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*According to data collected by Vault and MCCA in our annual Law Firm Diversity Survey, more than three-quarters of law firm equity partners are white men. Women represent less than 16 percent of the attorneys on firms’ executive committees; and, if you count only minority women, that number drops to less than 2 percent. (These numbers are based on last year’s diversity survey results; this year’s results will be released in a few weeks.)

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