Women make up only 16% of partners at large American law firms — a figure that’s remained virtually unchanged for a decade. And what makes that number even more troubling is that women now graduate from law school at nearly the same rates as men. Yet women partners earn on average just under $500,000 a year, while their male counterparts bring in about $734,000, according to a recent survey of attorney compensation.
Many women in the legal field have had it with this persistent inequality, and they’re demanding change. Historically, women lawyers at top firms have been very reluctant to call attention to their gender. Victoria Pynchon, who recently spoke about the issue on the radio program Marketplace, has worked as a litigator for 25 years, and is the founder of a consult group called She Negotiates. As she explains, “We’ve been told for decades that if we talk about women’s issues we’re whining.” But now a younger generation of women has realized they won’t be able to climb the ranks simply through hard work and dedication to their firms.
One third party injury lawyer at a major workers’ compensation firm noted that women “are saying goodbye to all of that, and they are exercising power without being given the authority to do so. And this is something that men do without even thinking about it.”
For instance, she explains that at one major firm, when votes come up for a new equity partner, the women combine into a voting bloc to support the best female candidate.
The female partners declined to talk on the record since their actions aren’t official firm policy.
But even some male attorneys are working to improve the status quo. At a recent meeting, Pynchon recalls a general counsel who announced that “I’m just going to call up my law firms and say I want you to have 30% of your equity partners women within some reasonable amount of time.”
But becoming a partner alone doesn’t translate into becoming a top earner in a firm. Marla Persky currently serves as general counsel for a major international pharmaceutical firm. She recently decided to start a company to teach women in the legal field how to be financially savvy — knowledge that many, surprisingly, lack. “With everything, you’ve got to follow the money,” Persky says. “At the heart of power and influence within firms is the ability to make rain. You’ve got to be able to bring in clients.”
Once women make gains in that regard, she says, both their compensation and status within in American law firms will improve.