Women Lawyer

Looking into the equity box

The first examination of female equity and nonequity partners reveals some surprises--and some good news.

Law firms would rather not discuss it, but women lawyers keep bringing it up. Forget all the lovely women's initiatives, these women say, because firms aren't talking about what really counts: how many of their female partners actually have equity.

In the first systematic look at this issue, two numbers immediately jump out from The American Lawyer 's sea of data. First, women make up only 17 percent of partners at the firms we surveyed, even though they have represented about 51 percent of law school graduates in the last 20 years. Second, of the women partners who work at multitier firms, 45 percent have equity status. In comparison, 62 percent of the male partners at these firms have equity. (For the purposes of this discussion, we have eliminated one-tier firms where, by definition, 100 percent of the partners have equity.)

The first number seems to justify continued pessimism. But is the second an indication of the progress that women have made? Or not, given the low number, in absolute terms, of women equity partners? Let the discussion begin.

Lurking under these snapshots is a whole lot of complexity. For one thing, more and more firms are going from the more transparent single-tier structure to a more complex multitier structure, so it's not easy to track the equity and nonequity pools. It has been tempting to call the income partner ranks another pink ghetto, except that it seems to be an option that many women want, especially those who work part-time. (Virtually all part-time partners are nonequity.) But are these women jumping or being pushed into the non­equity option?

Legal groups for women, including the National Association of Women Lawyers, have been pressuring firms to cough up information on the breakdown of equity and nonequity partners as part of the information they submit to the National Association for Law Placement. But this year, firms mounted a big fight against NALP's request that they disclose information about equity and nonequity partners. NALP eventually dropped the issue.

So we decided to tackle the subject. As part of our 2009 Diversity Survey, we compiled an equity/nonequity breakdown for 70 of the Am Law 100 firms. (We tried to get the whole set, but the other 30 either didn't provide complete information or declined to cooperate.) Labor and employment firm Littler Mendelson ranked first, for both the highest percentage of all women partners (30 percent) and the highest percentage of women equity partners (25 percent). Shook, Hardy & Bacon and Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr were tied for second at 23 percent women ­equity partners.

Some of the nation's most elite firms boast some of the best statistics for women equity partners. Seven of the top ten firms with the largest percentage of female equity partners are one-tier, crème de la crème institutions. Only three of the 18 one-tier firms on our survey fell below the 16 percent women equity partner mark: Williams & Connolly, at 14 percent; Schulte Roth & Zabel, at 13 percent; and Wach­tell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz at 9 percent. For the full chart, go to americanlawyer.com.

The flip side is that women equity partner numbers tend to lag behind at the multitier firms, where making partner is presumably easier. The irony is that some of those firms have a reputation for being family-friendly.

So are these firms actually hampering women's progress? To answer that question, we focused on firms that had a high overall percentage of women partners but a low percentage of women equity partners relative to the whole partnership. At these firms, the spread in percentages was ten or more points: Crowell & Moring (24 percent women partners vs. 13 percent women equity partners); Greenberg Traurig (19 percent vs. 9 percent); Duane Morris (21 percent vs. 9 percent); and Perkins Coie (19 percent vs. 9 percent). With the exception of Greenberg Traurig, they were all eager to talk.

At Perkins Coie, an astounding one-third of its 65 women partners work part-time. That number is undoubtedly a reason that the firm made the list of best law firms for women both at the group Yale Law Women and at Working Mother magazine. "I probably wouldn't be here if I couldn't do flextime," says Perkins Coie partner Dori Brewer, who works an 80 percent schedule. Though she had been an equity partner, Brewer opted for the nonequity, part-time track ten years ago to spend more time with her children. She says she doesn't feel her status as a corporate lawyer has been diminished or that she's shortchanged her career. Nonequity partners serve on compensation committees, she points out, and "part-time has given me the practice I love; it's made me want to stay here forever."

Maybe once you get a taste of part-time, you never want to go back to the full-time grind. In fact, some women say that they don't care about the equity/nonequity distinction. "I haven't really paid much attention to it," says Jamie Mandel, a trust and estates partner in Duane Morris's New York office who works an 80 percent schedule. Having equity or not has no bearing on her status at the firm, she adds: "It's only a financial thing." The mother of three kids under the age of 6, Mandel says she'd rather be a nonequity partner with control over her schedule than a full-time equity partner any day: "It's made working so much easier; I feel I have very good balance in my life."

It's a similar story at Washington, D.C.'s Crowell & Moring. Partner Bridget Calhoun says she was basically given carte blanche to design her own part-time arrangement while still an asso­ciate. When she approached her department heads about working part-time, she says they told her "to pick where you want to be on the continuum?somewhere between 0 and 100 percent." For about four years, she chose to work two days a week. Originally a litigator, she switched to regulatory counseling and government investigations to accommodate her schedule. Now she works a 60 percent load?the highest percentage she's worked in the last eight years.

Calhoun is in an exceptional position--she's a part-time income partner who's on track for equity. She was recently picked by the firm to be part of a business development program that's designed for future rainmakers. But how many women enjoy such an advantage? While nonequity, flextime options are unquestionably popular, it's not clear that lawyers on those tracks will ever have the opportunity to get back in the equity game. Unless these women develop clients--a tough task as a part-timer--it's a very, very long shot.

Still, these firms feel that they have found a solution to a vexing problem--keeping talented women at their firm and getting more on the equity track. "If anything, part-time will help keep women in the pipeline," says Calhoun, who says she expects to see a lot more equity women at her firm in the near future. "The snapshot you see today is not indicative of what it will be in a few years."

We shall see.

(Published by The American Lawyer Magazine – September 1, 2010)

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