2011 U.S. National Association of Women in the Law Survey

  • January 13, 2011
  • Rebecca Bromwich

Since 2006, the U.S. National Association of Women in the Law (NAWL) has been conducting an annual survey on retention and promotion of women in law firms. Results of the most recent such survey were released in October. What follows is a link to the full text of a NAWL Report: National Survey On Retention And Promotion Of Women In Law Firms, October, 2011.

This NAWL Survey is the only U.S. study that annually tracks the professional progress of women in the nation's 200 largest law firms. It provides a comparative view of the careers and compensation of men and women lawyers at all levels of private practice, as well as analyzing data about the factors that influence career progression.

In brief, last year’s news isn’t good. What is remarkable and new about this news is that 2011 marks the first time that women’s progress towards equality with men in the legal profession is sliding backwards.

To quote the Report, this year, survey results point to:

…a sobering picture of the prospects for women in “Big Law.” Not only do women represent a decreasing percentage of lawyers in big firms, they have a far greater chance of occupying positions – like staff attorneys, counsel, and fixed-income equity partners – with diminished opportunity for advancement or participating in firm leadership. [Emphasis added]

In sum, at least in the U.S., continuing low levels of women participating in senior partnership/managing roles are combining with the increasing complexity of law firm hierarchies and lower numbers of women entering into private practice to produce continuing inequality for women in the legal profession. More specifically, the U.S. survey made the following findings:

  • The percentages of women entering law schools and entering large firms in particular have apparently peaked and are now in decline;
  • For the first time since 2006, percentages of women in large firms are decreasing;
  • Women account for only 15% of equity partners and this number has been steady for 20 years;
  • Women are much more likely than men to occupy positions that are not “partner-track”;
  • Women are disproportionately either actually not bringing in business to firms or they are not credited with the business they bring in;
  • Women at every stage of practice earn less than their male counterparts, with the biggest difference at the equity partner level;
  • Women continue to be “markedly underrepresented” in law firm leadership; and
  • Women represent an astonishing 80% of “fixed-income equity partners,” those lawyers in mixed-tier or other firms who are required to contribute capital but do not share in the overall profits of the firm.”

Perhaps the one good thing about the bad news presented in the NAWL survey is that it documents the reality of problems with gender inequality. Repeated assertions are offered in law firms, and in popular parlance more broadly, that equality for women has been achieved both in the legal profession and in Canada as a whole. Such claims and erroneous assumptions can undermine current and future work and particularly compromise the resources allocated to that work. The NAWL report underscores ongoing need for continued efforts to ensure women can take an equal place in the legal profession alongside their male colleagues. While it represents U.S. data, and the Canadian context has important unique dimensions, it is unlikely, especially where there is increasing globalization of legal work in North America, that the picture is utterly different in Canada. The backsliding towards inequality that is newly evident speaks to a need for redoubling of efforts towards retention of women in private practice.

At the same time, the report speaks to a growing need to focus efforts on women who are contemplating their career choices and have yet to take places in the legal profession. It implies that more young women lawyers are now opting not to enter private practice. It further implies that more women are also choosing not to enter law school. Since this is a new problem, perhaps some consideration needs to be given to whether creative new means should be undertaken to ensure that women are encouraged to enter, as well as to remain in, the profession.

Rebecca Bromwich is a staff lawyer, Law Reform and Equality, at the Canadian Bar Association in Ottawa.