Women Leaders of The Am Law 100: The Law of Small Numbers

An in-depth look at the number of women serving in leadership positions at The Am Law 100.

, The American Lawyer



Correction, 1/3/12, 11:40 a.m. EST: The print edition of this story incorrectly stated that Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher had four women on its 15-partner executive committee in 2001. The firm had four women on this committee in 2011. The 15th paragraph of the story has been revised to reflect the correct information. We regret the error.

Our question was simple. After years of measuring women's success in law firms primarily by the percentage of female equity partners, we wanted to use a more exacting standard. We wanted to know: How many women partners had advanced to the highest ranks of law firm hierarchies?

To that end, we asked each firm in The Am Law 100 to list the women partners serving in their firm's highest leadership positions—as firmwide managing partners or chairs, as members of a chief governing body or a compensation committee, as head of a practice or an office. After a fair amount of pestering, 93 firms in The Am Law 100 responded. Their answers were not surprising. There was a smattering of firms that stood out for their higher proportion of women in top leadership roles—a group that included Fulbright & Jaworski, Reed Smith, and Shook, Hardy & Bacon. These outliers had female partners who represented more than a third, or even half, of a governing or compensation committee, and they did so with a critical mass of three or more seats. But for most of the rest, the numbers of women leaders were depressingly similar.

As our in-depth interactive chart shows, it was a tale of ones and twos among many of the chief governing committees. Almost 80 percent of the 92 firms with a chief governing committee reported a committee with two or fewer women; 42 percent reported a committee with only woman partner. (Eight firms, including Bryan Cave, Cahill Gordon & Reindel, Chadbourne & Parke, Davis Polk & Wardwell, Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, Proskauer Rose, and Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, had at least one chief governing committee with no women partners.) There were a handful or two of female managing partners or chairs. And women were rife among professional development, diversity, recruiting, and partner nominating committees. But they were in far shorter supply when it came to the very top power structures of the firm—the select groups that chart each firm's strategic course, policies, and, of course, their pay. Membership among these governing groups isn't the only mark of power at law firms, of course, nor are these positions necessarily sought or desired by all partners. But the visibility and influence of these leadership groups is difficult to dismiss. And the relative dearth of women in these top roles is striking. As one female partner at an Am Law 100 firm put it bluntly: "Women are largely getting stuck in lower middle management. There is still a moat around the top management, and that keeps the power to a small group of men."

The reasons offered by partners and law firm leaders are, in part, familiar: that there aren't enough senior women partners or rainmakers to populate these positions. Some argue that women turn away from the time and administrative burden of these leadership positions; others minimize their significance in the relatively flat hierarchies of law firms. Almost all raised a theory of law firm relativity: We know that we should have more women in leadership positions, but we're no worse than our peers.

Against this backdrop, the firms that have a more meaningful proportion of women leaders are all the more noteworthy. And while there is no simple formula, a combination of management will, a focus on succession planning, and partnerships with clients have yielded admirable results.

The broad spectrum of management and governance structures among The Am Law 100 makes side-by-side comparisons challenging. Some firms have only one governing body, others have two or more, and a few have none (Cravath, Swaine & Moore and Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan). The titles and responsibilities vary, but as a group, the most common entities include some combination of a management committee, an executive or policy committee, and an executive or advisory board. To simplify, we collected the gender data for each firm's "primary governance committee," allowing firms to name up to two committees if they were of roughly equal power and importance. For consistency, we listed the smallest committee first when firms reported two committees. We also compared the gender data for the group charged with making partner compensation decisions. In some cases this was a separate compensation committee; in others it was identical to one of the firm's chief governing bodies or a subset of one. (We always listed the group responsible for compensation decisions separately in our chart, but we noted whether that group was a subset of a chief governing committee.) And lastly, we listed the gender split of office leaders, as well as practice and department leaders. We included coleaders, but not those who are second-in-command. Since it was not uncommon to have two partners coleading a practice (or one person overseeing multiple practices or offices), we calculated proportions based on total head count.

The results painted a picture where women were still very much the minority in firms' top power structures. Only 14 firms had even one governing committee with female partners accounting for more than 25 percent of its members. Among the respondents, women occupied an average of 16.8 percent (1.8 seats) of the 10.8 seats on the smallest (or only) governing committee. Among the 37 firms with a second governing body, women partners occupied an average of 20 percent (5.0 seats out of 25.8 seats) on the larger governing committee.

The data for compensation committees, practice groups, and office heads wasn't much better. On the firms' compensation committees, women occupy an average of 2.3 out of 12.8 seats (18 percent). They represent 20 percent of practice group leaders and 15 percent of office managing partners. And often, these percentages reflect a degree of double-counting: It was not uncommon for the same one or two senior women to occupy seats on multiple high-powered committees.

No one is happy with these numbers. "Clearly law firms are not where we would like to be or should be when you look at the demographics of law school graduates and incoming asso­ciates," says Morgan Lewis chair Francis Milone, a point conceded by virtually all 28 law firm leaders and partners interviewed for this story.

But there certainly weren't a shortage of explanations. The most-cited one: The higher rate of attrition among women lawyers makes any type of gender balance among leadership a virtual impossibility. With women constituting an average of only 15 percent of the equity partner ranks, it's not a surprise that the leadership ranks should be similarly weighted toward men, say many law firm leaders. "Partners making election [decisions for leaders] will be dealing with the pool that they have; if that pool is limited, the results are [going to be] limited," says Milone.

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