Women lawyers still hit glass ceiling

A statue of Themis, the Goddess of Justice.

Women make up about 16 percent of equity partners at big law firms -- a number that has barely budged in a decade. This despite the fact women graduate from law school in almost the same numbers as men. Women partners also earn on average just under $500,000 a year, while men earn $734,000, according to a recent survey of lawyers' compensation. Some female lawyers have had enough of these discrepancies, and they're pushing for change.

Women lawyers at top firms hate drawing attention to their gender. "We've been told for decades that if we talk about women's issues we're whining," says Victoria Pynchon, a litigator for 25 years and co-founder of a consultancy called She Negotiates. She says a new generation of women is realizing they can't get to the top just by working hard and following the rules.

"Women lawyers in these major law firms are saying good bye to all of that, and they are exercising power without being given the authority to do so," she says. "And this is something that men do without even thinking about it."

For example, she says at one large firm, when they vote for a new equity partner, women partners now come together to support the best female candidate.

That may sound like a small thing, but by bloc voting, they improve that candidate's chance of getting elected. Women at that firm didn't want to talk on the record because what they're doing is not official firm policy.

Some men within firms are also trying to change the status quo. Beth Kaufman heads the National Association of Women Lawyers. She says in-house attorneys at client companies are on the case as well.

"One general counsel raised her hand and said 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," Kaufman says.

But even if you become a partner, that doesn't necessarily mean you'll become a top moneymaker. Marla Persky is currently general counsel for a global pharmaceutical firm. Next year she's starting a company to teach female lawyers how to be financially savvy -- knowledge she says many sorely lack.

"With everything, you've got to follow the money," says Persky. "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."

When women do more of that, she says, both their compensation and status within firms will increase.

About the author

Ashley Milne-Tyte is the host of a podcast about women in the workplace called The Broad Experience.

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