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



Another explanation high on the list: the perceived low numbers of women rainmakers in the profession. "It's almost a law of physics that lawyers won't follow [or elect] someone who has not been a resounding success as a lawyer," says Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe CEO Ralph Baxter. "And when you look at the big rainmakers in U.S. law, there aren't as many women," he says, noting that the client market still contains biases against women. That belief—which might be subject to biases itself—is echoed by many law firms and recent research. In the most recent report by the National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL), almost half (46 percent) of all Am Law 200 firms report no women rainmakers among their top 10 business generators; another third report only one.

Some partners argue that management or executive committee memberships may be an unwanted prize in the midst of busy practices and 24-hour days. Many women partners, as well as men, would rather devote time to networking with clients or a life outside the office. "[These committees] are real work, and much of it is administrative and invisible," says one partner at an Am Law 50 firm who says she would rather not serve on her firm's executive committee. "It's not that I'm opting out; it's that I'm making an intelligent choice with my time," she says. Even women who have populated the upper tiers of management express some ambivalence. "It's certainly not the most productive time I have spent at the firm," says another female partner at an Am Law 50 firm about her tenure on the firm's management committee.

And the all-around dismal gender numbers in leadership at The Am Law 100 make it easy to argue that the larger world—with its sociological pressures on women to balance home lives, and the residual biases against ambitious women—is more at fault than individual law firms—each of which can point to a slew of female-friendly policies such as part-time programs and business development seminars.

"As a mother with three daughters, it's fair to say that I'm disappointed with where the world is, but I'm not disappointed in Davis Polk," says partner Nora Jordan, noting that during her 30-year career, she spent several years working part-time, served as chair of the firm's compensation committee, and has been head of the firm's investment management group for a decade. To Jordan, that history trumps the fact that Davis Polk has yet to have a female on its three-person executive committee.

Numbers, of course, don't ever tell the whole story. There are firms, like Debevoise & Plimpton, with a group of powerful women practice leaders and rainmakers that today have only one woman on their eight-partner management committee. And there are others, like Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, that might be penalized by timing: Gibson had four women on its 15-partner executive committee in 2011; today it has two.

But hard numbers can be revealing, and looking at the numbers, a handful of firms stood out. These firms have a combination of policies, practices, and even clients that have helped them achieve a better balance. One common thread among firms with higher ratios of women in leadership is the willingness to use appointive power and management edicts to drive diversity. Take the gains made by Fulbright & Jaworski during the 10-year tenure of chairman Steven Pfeiffer. The Houston-based firm's governance enables the chairman to appoint the executive committee and heads of departments, and Pfeiffer didn't hesitate to use that power to advance diversity goals.

"For me, it was a pretty obvious opportunity that needed to be seized," says Pfeiffer, "If you're a woman, and it's just a bunch of white guys directing the institution, how can you feel confident that at those critical moments, there would be a woman's perspective in the room?" he says.

The upshot is women partners went from occupying one seat out of seven on the executive committee to three women out of six by 2007, a 50:50 gender ratio that continues today and is the highest gender ratio on a governing committee of all 93 respondents. Women partners also lead key offices such as Houston, New York, and London.

Similarly, Reed Smith today reports one of the highest percentages of women leaders, a fact that managing partner Greg Jordan largely attributes to the firm's decision 12 years ago to consider diversity when nominating certain executive committee seats. In 2001 the firm amended its partnership agreement to provide for three "at-large" executive committee seats that would be nominated by the executive committee itself "to correct any imbalances" in representation. Previously, the nonmanagement members of the executive committee had been elected by partnership vote. "And we had a very white and male partnership and an [executive committee] that looked like that partnership," says Jordan. The "at-large" seats allowed the executive committee to directly adjust the gender, racial, and geographical diversity of the group, he says.

Over the next decade, the number of women who held seats on Reed Smith's executive committee went from three (or 17 percent of a then-smaller 18-member committee) in 2001 to nine seats, or 38 percent of a 24-member committee in 2012, a proportion that well exceeds the percentage of the firm's women equity partners (20.1 percent). Over time those appointments have created momentum for women partners in the open elections, says Jordan. Four of the six women currently holding voting seats on the executive committee, including newest committee member Julia Krebs-Markrich, obtained that seat in an open election, says Jordan. (Only 16 executive committee members hold voting seats.)

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