Several firms report 50 percent or more in their entering class — but, increasingly, they are aiming for the partnership suite. The national average for female partners (both equity and nonequity) among the top grossing 100 firms is now 16 percent — not cause for a national holiday, perhaps, but notable, considering that it was just 10.6 percent in 1992.
In the last decade almost every major firm increased — however modestly — its female shareholders. And the feminization of law practice doesn’t stop there. Mentoring programs, part-time work options, generous maternity leaves (up to nine months, three of them paid), emergency child care facilities, and other women/family-sensitive measures have become standard fare at the nation’s most elite firms. Indeed, women lawyers have never had it so good.
But here’s the paradox: Despite the promising statistics and progressive policies, a vastly disproportionate percentage of women still aren’t sticking around to compete for the ultimate firm prize: partnership. The reality is that almost all associates bail out of firms, but women lawyers, who more often seem charged with trying to balance work and home, bail out of the game far more often than men.
When push comes to shove, women tend to choose family over competition for big-time partnerships.
Does the choice have to be that stark? After reviewing statistics and talking to women at major firms, we see a variety of experiences. Some leading firms, such as New York’s Davis Polk & Wardwell, seem to have done exceptionally well in addressing the work-home dilemma while advancing women; others — such as Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy — have stagnated or fallen behind.
One lesson is clear: The easy part is putting those progressive policies on the books; the hard part is convincing all parties — both the institution and the women — that they can work.