On International Women's Day, Suzanne Foster analyses the reasons why females are getting abigger slice of the equity pie in law firms
Global Legal Post’s recent article about the levels of equity held by female partners in US law firms - based on research by US magazine, The American Lawyer, makes for interesting reading on both sides of the Atlantic. It shows that women are taking a bigger slice of the partnership equity in the top US firms. In particular, those women at firms which only offer full equity partnership are, in relative terms, doing particularly well (holding nearly 18% of the partnership). In contrast, in firms which have both equity and non-equity / income partner status, women make up only 14.6 % of the equity partners, and 24.6 % of non-equity partners.
Female big hitters
Out of the one-tier (full equity only) firms that provided a breakdown of gender, 22 firms (out of the 30 one-tier firms who provided the information) have female equity partnership rates above 15%. The American Lawyer defines equity partners as “those who receive no more than half of their compensation on a fixed-income basis”. Those 22 one-tier respondents include big hitters such as Wilmer Cutler Hale & Dorr (23.2% women equity partners) and Ropes & Gray (20.7%).
A number of theories were debated in the article as to why this may be the case, some being more recognisable and sustainable than others, including:
• single tier partnerships being more collegiate and less cut throat than two-tier firms;
• the partnership requirements at one-tier firms being more favourable for women e.g. not simply based on books of business;
• there being more competition at two tier firms for clients and status;
• alternatives to partnership, including “staff attorney” and “counsel” can mean women are side-tracked and never reach equity (although this, the article submits, could be through personal choice); and
• in one-tier firms there is more stability in the client base because often the base is comprised of institutional clients, so there is less competing for business.
A UK perspective
A similar study in the UK would be interesting to compare, although anecdotally there are less one-tier practices in the top ranks of UK law firms, and as the article acknowledges in relation to the US, pure equity firms in the US are also in the minority.
Turning to the UK, in November last year, The Lawyer reported that just 9.4% of equity partners (and 23.5% across all partners) in the UK’s largest 100 law firms (by revenue) are female.
Having a full equity partnership is, arguably, less discriminatory compared to a partnership comprising of both equity and non-equity. Fixed share partner (FSP) or salaried partner status can in our experience frequently become a parking ground for successful female partners, whose ascent from fixed share to equity partnership status can be halted by the partner’s desire to start a family in or around their early to mid-30s (the usual point at which they are likely to have just entered FSP status). Once the female partner is in the silo of FSP status for a number of years because of maternity absences, it is often very difficult for them to clamber out of it into full equity.
A fairer playing field?
Is it therefore a fairer playing field if firms simply offer full equity partnership status with lower bandings at the bottom, and nothing else? Not necessarily a uniform equity status, but one that is defined by various bandings and gateways to have a genuinely meritorious system which does allow for a certain degree of differentiation and also allows for appropriate progression without having to go through an entire new equity partnership application and business case process.
We have seen initially high-flying female partners, who were fast tracked to FSP status with full-firm and departmental support, and who then having taken one or more maternity leaves, thereafter languished in that FSP status with limited prospect of building a new business case in the short term to move to the full equity ladder, because of those absences. The sting in the tail then comes when they are asked to leave the firm for “underperformance” because they are perceived as not being able to get beyond FSP status to full equity as originally expected of them and as having become too expensive as a result.
Not just discrimination
Whilst it is true that the inability of a female partner to ascend to equity partner status is not always down to discriminatory reasons – as the American Lawyer article states itself – it can be due to, for example, personal choice, or even genuine poor performance, but from our experience it is frequently difficult for FSPs to make the leap to equity status on their return from maternity leave despite their strong desire to wish to do so.
And full partners aren’t exempt from these progression issues either, even though they have crossed the equity threshold. Frequently successful female partners who have been admitted to the full equity but then chose to take multiple maternity leaves, similarly face perceptions of underperformance, client loss and consequent general exclusion from key aspects of and roles in the practice following their return, often leading shortly thereafter to a request that they leave the firm.
Regrettably firms all too frequently fail to offer adequate support and more importantly - time – to maternity returning partners. The female partner will often return from maternity leave to an empty or reduced book of business (other partners having swooped in on their unguarded clients in their absence) or a ‘restructure’ having taken place so the partner is left isolated away from their original team and client base.
There is also an impatient expectation by the firm that the partner should be up and running at a similar, if not higher (given the passage of time and increased targets since her departure) billing level compared to the levels prior to her departure. These higher billings are often expected to reflect themselves on the books almost instantly, allowing no time for any meaningful integration back with clients and the team or for the partner’s pipeline of work to restart thereafter. Internal competition means that there is often little willingness to share valuable work between partners who are concerned to ensure their individual figures are as high as possible to protect their own positions.
Whilst the partner may have been carefully mentored and supported on their ascent to FSP status, that mentoring assistance often fades into the background on a return from maternity leave. Mentoring and support by other partners – including female equity partners who have successfully reintegrated is important - offering guidance and support that combining childcare and life as an equity partner is possible.
Despite the arguments for a single tier status, it’s not to say that achieving full equity status for women resolves all of the issues or is easier, but at least women may have a fighting chance once they have entered the equity realm.
But there are always two sides to a story and firms shouldn’t necessarily shoulder all of the responsibility. Female partners can help themselves by trying to maintain some visibility with clients and key internal contacts, as far as is sensible and realistic, when they are on leave and not actually doing the client work themselves. Whilst it may be the last thing a partner with a new-born wants to do, it is generally politically and professionally sensible for them to stay visible to a degree and maintain a watching brief on their practice.
If a female partner chooses to have no interaction with their practice, team or clients during their absence, unfortunately they may be setting themselves up for a much harder mountain to climb on their return. And this is particularly so in a market where the competition for clients in the external market is tough, but where in the internal market within many firms, it can be even tougher. A combination of more rigorous and structured support from firms and a dose of practical and measured self-help by female partners, (including but not limited to around maternity leave and return) is needed to ensure women’s continued progression in their firms regardless of how the equity is structured.
Suzanne Foster specialises in partnership and employment law at CM Murray LLP: www.cm-murray.com Susanne.firstname.lastname@example.org