13 Apr 2021

Law firms still struggling on gender equality, according to US study

Yale Law Women survey highlights that only 20% of equity partners are women

By f11photo; Shutterstock

While law firms continue to take steps to increase gender equality, those efforts have had limited success, according to Yale Law Women’s annual gender equity and family friendliness report.

The Top Firms Report found that while women have made up around 45% of entering associate classes for decades, women still only make up 30% of non-equity partners and only a fifth of equity partners. The report also states that the industry’s long history of sexual discrimination and harassment still persists today, with only a little more than a third of firms surveyed fully eliminating mandatory arbitration clauses and non-disclosure agreements covering sexual harassment claims and other disputes.

It also referenced sexual harassment allegations levelled at two high-profile members of the legal profession last year: the late federal appeals judge Stephen Reinhardt, who regularly harassed a law clerk, according to her testimony before the House Judiciary Committee last February, and Yale Law School professor Jed Rubenfeld, who was suspended for two years last August following an investigation

The report said: ‘The past few years have... seen a reckoning for prominent men in the profession who have been accused of sexual harassment. From the recent allegations against Judge Steven Reinhardt to the suspension of Yale Law School professor Jed Rubenfeld, the industry is finally starting to catch up with the #MeToo movement.’

The report went on to highlighted the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on women in the workplace. By January this year, women accounted for 55% of the almost 10 million jobs lost in the US since the start of the pandemic. Some 2.1 million women have also dropped out of the workforce given the additional burden of child and eldercare.

Yale Law Women said: “Female lawyers specifically face unique challenges during the Covid-19 pandemic, because telework has made it more difficult to establish relationships with mentors and sponsors.”

Increased focus on racial equality in the US following the death of George Floyd has already had an impact on law firms, with the percentage of black or African American associates surpassing 5% for the first time on record. However, black and Latinx women each still account for less than 1% of all law firm partners nationwide, Yale Law Women said.

The report also included awards for firms that are making strides with their equality programmes, with Morgan Lewis named as the best for hiring practices, Morrison & Foerster for the most diverse leadership, and Jenner & Block for both training and mentorship and part-time working options.

Research designed to improve gender diversity within the profession includes a study by Thomson Reuters published in November that found that flexible working was key to improving diversity while women-only networks may be counter-productive.

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