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From Bar Exam to Partner: A Closer Look at Women in Law


If it is anything like last year, there are almost 1,000 Ohioans (and almost 50,000 Americans) sitting down to take the bar examination this week. With an overall passing rate nationwide of only 59%, the stress is real. Once taken (and possibly re-taken), recent law-school graduates who pass the bar turn their focus to the job market.

According to the NAWL 2017 Annual Report Survey, “for over a decade, approximately 50 percent of law students nationwide have been women, law firms have recruited women entry-level associates in proportion to their representation among law school graduates.” However, as in many male-dominated industries, we do not see the same proportion of women represented as equity partners in those same law firms.

Let’s breaking things down further into a snapshot of important statistics—we’ll start with the big numbers and work our way down to small ones:

  • 97% report that top earners are men

  • 90% earned by women for every man’s dollar

  • 30% of non-equity partners are women

  • 19% of equity partners are women

  • 6% of equity partners are people of color

  • 2% of equity partners are openly LGBTQ

  • <1% of equity partners are individuals with disabilities

While some of these numbers may seem discouraging, fear not—there is a silver lining.

  • 100% of firms reported that women’s initiative are part of diversity plans

  • 87.5% of firms have resources allocated to diversity efforts

The current climate is certainly the likely driver for so many firms investing in their diversity and inclusion efforts, and with 100% reporting a women’s initiative, we want to believe that change is on the horizon. The question then becomes, is this investment focused on areas that truly drive lasting change that will clear the path for women to move into partner roles, or is it simply a bandaid to provide good PR and recruit quality talent—even it it isn’t retained?

Where should firms focus if they truly want to create an environment inclusive of all genders and has more equal representation at the partner level?

  1. Ensure that diverse lawyers get access to good work and clients. Working Mother magazine has a Best Law Firms for Women Initiative that awards 50 companies annually with the title. A member of the advisory board suggests strategies that include collaboration across levels and positions, broad posting of opportunities and an emphasis on diverse pitch teams.

  2. Understand what makes your employees leave. A 2014 article, “Large law firms are failing women lawyers” identifies a variety of challenges for women in firms. Recognize your organization’s unique opportunities for improvement in equal pay, flexible work, or a respectful work environment. Asking the right questions may get you onto the “Best Law Firm” list more quickly, and retain top talent.

  3. Create women’s initiatives with a clear mission. NAWL reports that “most (91%) firms reported that they had mission statements specifically for their Women’s Initiatives. Further, 87% reported that their Women’s Initiative is part of the strategic plan of the firm, up from 47 percent in 2012. In addition to Women’s Initiatives being incorporated into the strategic vision of the law firm, essentially all firms also reported that they had specific objectives for their Initiatives.” Beyond establishing a mission and objectives for the firm, communicating purpose and gaining buy-in from all employees (not just women) is critical for an initiative’s success.

Let’s work on changing the stats for the 50% of female law students sweating over their bar exam right now. They deserve it.

Not sure where your firm should begin? Learn more about our strategic work with women’s initiatives.