Are women equal in law firms?: Local firms examine ways to retain female employees

November 13, 2006

A new survey shows that women are still scarce at the top levels of the legal profession, a phenomenon that local firms are working hard to change.

Most of the nation's 200 largest firms participated in the survey by the National Association of Women Lawyers. The survey was designed to collect information not only about how many women are employed by law firms, but also how many women are in the higher ranks of firms, such as governing groups and managing partners.

"In some ways the results are surprising and in some ways they're not," said Cathy Fleming, president of NAWL and a partner at Edwards Angell Palmer & Dodge in New York. "For example, the survey shows that women lawyers are well-represented at the lowest level of the profession, constituting 45 percent of associates, but not at the top of the profession."

The survey, released Oct. 25, also found that women make up 16 percent of equity partners, or one in six. But when looking at the number of attorneys in the prime earning years (between 10 and 25 years' experience), women account for 20 percent of equity partners, or one in five. Women accounted for 28 percent of the of-counsel attorneys and 26 percent of non-equity partners.

The survey compared the number of female partners with the percentage of law school graduates who are women, and found, once again, that the numbers don't add up.

A brief glance at some of the largest law firms in Indiana reflects similar numbers. Of female attorneys at many large law firms in the state, more appear to be associates than partners, while more male attorneys appear to be partners, according to preliminary results of two surveys being conducted in Indiana by the Indiana Supreme Court Commission on Race & Gender Fairness and the Women in the Law Committee of the Indiana Bar Association. The results will be released later this year.

"For over 15 years, 50 percent of law school graduates have been women, yet for a number of years only 15 percent of law firm equity partners and chief legal officers have been women," NAWL reported. "In an era when partnerships are made within seven to 10 years of law school graduation, many in the legal profession had expected that, by now, there would be gender parity at all but the most senior levels of law firm partnership."

"It's encouraging to see so many women who finished law school," said Andi Metzel, a partner at Dann Pecar Newman & Kleiman. But there is an "amazing trend around the country of women who are opting out of the practice of law," she said. That might explain why there aren't more women in the partner ranks.

Mitzel said many women leave the profession to care for children or elderly parents.

"It's a difficult decision for a lot of professional legal women to make," Metzel said. "It tends to be more likely that women are faced with that decision-at least that's what I've been hearing."

Chris Frazier, chairwoman of the Women and the Law division of the Indianapolis Bar Association, agreed.

"Women are finding it difficult to strike a balance between professional and personal life, and we haven't quite figured that out," Frazier said.

Another explanation for the shortage of female partners at large firms is the tendency of women to join smaller firms or start their own practices.

Frazier says that she didn't go into a large firm because "it wasn't the right fit for me. I never went into the practice thinking I would be a partner in 10 years."

Metzel said she began her career at a larger firm before accepting a job in a prosecutor's office because she wanted more time in court. She later transferred back to private practice at a mediumsized firm.

As a recruiter for her firm, Metzel has observed that younger practitioners seem fearful "of being a cog in a wheel" at a large firm.

"Maybe it's generational, but quality-oflife issues are very important to our associates," she said. "They want to have a balance of work and personal life, and that's why a lot of associates are looking to work in a medium-size firm."

Metzel has noticed that a number of women attorneys in smaller towns have solo or small-firm practices-something that "doesn't lessen the workload if you're running the ship," she said.

Pat Polis McCrory of Locke Reynolds in Indianapolis prefers working for a large firm because it allows her to spend more time practicing law as opposed to worrying about details like how to set up a laptop or review resumes, two things she did for her former mid-sized firm. She was pleasantly surprised that her position at a larger firm gives her the flexibility to go on vacation and take time off to attend school activities with her two children.

Results matter

Local firms say they are focused on providing the work-life balance that will help them retain highly regarded attorneys.

Bingham McHale LLP recently conducted a survey of all of its employees from capital partners to legal secretaries, said Amy Stewart, a partner with the firm and chairwoman of its diversity committee. The committee will use the results to determine how the firm can retain and support employees with significant obligations outside of their practice. The policies will apply to all employees-not just women-who have outside obligations, such as young families.

Like many firms, Bingham McHale allows attorneys to work from home or remote locations.

An option for part-time work without losing the option to become a partner has proven beneficial for Kathleen Brickley, a non-equity partner at Barnes & Thornburg LLP in South Bend. She was one of the first attorneys in her office to start part-time and become a partner.

Brickley always wanted to work at a large firm, but when she started having children, being with them became more important. Brickley and another attorney went parttime around the same time with reduced supervisory duties.

Brickley's office has a lactation room for nursing mothers, and the firm also offers 12 weeks of paid maternity leave.

Indianapolis-based Ice Miller LLP allows attorneys to work part time and provides privacy for nursing mothers, said co-managing partner Melissa Proffitt Reese.

At Ice Miller, eight of the 24 practice areas are chaired by women, one practice group chair is a minority, two-thirds of the executive staff are women, and 25 percent of partners are women, she said.

Bingham McHale's Stewart thinks the attention being paid to diversity at law firms is paying off.

"With everybody thinking about it, writing about it, and publishing surveys, I'm excited and hopeful we're on the eve of seeing some terrific progress in law firms nationally that makes us more accessible, open, and inviting, and allows us to provide long-term professional homes for a wider cross-section of the talent pool," Stewart said. "Hopefully that's about to happen."
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