Women and the Glass Ceiling in BigLaw

BY DANIEL HENTSCHEL – Over the past decade, the amount of women in the work field has increased dramatically. Most people would attribute this change to the evolution of culture in the US and the amount of media exposure the topic of “gender equality” has received. Though this is all good news and great for the nation moving forward, there are a couple of law firms that haven’t really caught on with the “movement.” Law is a profession that bases its whole practice on equality and justice, yet many female attorneys can’t seem to get the respect they deserve.

Over the past year, there have been various articles depicting sexist acts that female attorneys have faced while on the job. Whether it’s a female attorney that gets hit on by her fellow attorneys or the common misconception that women attorneys who aggressively represent their clients are considered bitchy whereas the men who do the same are “excellent litigators,” females are in constant battle to win over the respect of their male counterparts.[1]

Though I will not mention the name of the firm, there is a very successful law firm with a Miami office with over 90 attorneys that has an interesting view on social justice. The same office has only promoted one woman to partnership in all of its 25 years of existence.[2] When questioned about the disparity between number of male and female partners, a spokesman for the firm responded by saying that “As a global law firm, our new partner class is assessed on a global basis; 18 percent of our new partners for 2013 are women” meaning that 82 percent of partners are males.[3] The 82 percent of male partners that the firm calls “equality” happens to be very similar to other big law firms.  The National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL) released its annual Survey on Retention and Promotion of Women in Law Firms. According to their findings, BigLaw firms recruit 60 percent female and 40 percent male law graduates into their practices. However, within a couple of years, the number of females steadily decreases. On average 64 percent of law firm staff attorneys are women while the equity partners are 83 percent men, leaving the average number of female equity partners in these firms at 17 percent. [4]

I may not be able to say that I understand how it feels to be a female in the legal world but I can say that in order to keep the profession up to date with the evolution of society, firms like the ones mentioned in the article need to change their “macho attitude.” In the business world, researchers at Catalyst found, on average, Fortune 500 companies with the highest representation of women board directors are attaining significantly higher financial performance than those with the lowest representation.[5] Firms should start following the same trend as it can ultimately end up being beneficial for everyone in the firm. It also contributes to the “gender equality” movement. If attorneys work to obtain justice and equality for their clients, why can’t some firms share the same goal within the work place?

[1] Staci Zaretsky, Stop Treating Woman Lawyers like Crap, Above the Law (2014), available at http://abovethelaw.com/2014/10/stop-treating-women-lawyers-like-crap/

[2] Staci Zaretsky, Which Biglaw Office has Promoted only One Woman to be Partner in 25 years, Above the Law (2013), available at http://abovethelaw.com/2013/01/which-biglaw-office-has-promoted-only-one-woman-to-partner-in-25-years/

[3] Supra note 2

[4] Brian Dalton, Is there a Business Case for more female Biglaw Partners, Above the Law (2014), available at http://abovethelaw.com/2014/06/is-there-a-business-case-for-more-female-biglaw-partners/

[5] Id. 

Daniel Hentschel is a 2016 Staff Editor of the Race and Social Justice Law Review.

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