Women Battle Law Firm Bias

Published in Ms. JD 1/10/2012 and Role / Reboot 11/26/2011

Gender diversity is good for business. As a 2010 McKinsey Global Survey reported, 72 percent of executives “believe there is a direct connection between a company’s gender diversity and its financial success.” The study also noted that companies with the greatest gender diversity had better than average operating results and returns on equity. Yet, despite these monetary benefits and legal prohibitions on sex discrimination, women have yet to make significant inroads in the power structure and profit sharing at BigLaw.

Admittedly, law has been a male-dominated profession for centuries, but females have provided much of the brainpower since the 1980s. Thirty years of acclimatization has done little to convince the old boys who run these clubs that women deserve full membership in proportion to their representation among the worker bee associate class.

The number of female equity partners at major firms has hovered around 15 percent for the last twenty years. (Equity partners have an ownership interest and receive the largest compensation.) This ceiling is especially troubling given women have constituted at least 40 percent of enrolling law students since 1985 and reached a high of 50 percent in 1999. Additionally, women’s representation in the ranks of associates entering major firms after graduation has been roughly comparable.

The National Association of Women Lawyers 2011 survey of the country’s 200 largest law firms the considered other markers of women’s status. Of the 121 firms responding, 77 percent have at most two women on their governing bodies, which are typically comprised of about ten members. Worse, female equity partners on average earn only 86% of the amount their male peers earn.

This continuing disparity has been the source of much commentary. Analysts have suggested causes ranging from a lack of mentors to women’s failure to self-promote.

But as this pattern has continued, the hard truth has begun to surface. The primary cause is sexism, generously described as “unconscious bias.” The bias arises in daily interactions and in law firms’ policies that are set by governing bodies dominated by men.

When a woman’s performance is evaluated, she is tends to be judged more harshly than her male peers. A major Wall Street law firm commissioned a consultant to evaluate its associate review process, agreeing the results could be disclosed as long as the firm wasn’t identified. The consultant, M.J. Tocci, studied 268 written lawyer evaluations and found that men and women whose work quality was described similarly in narratives received different numerical scores with the men ranking higher. Overall, a significantly higher percentage of men (14 percent) received evaluations in the top category than women (4.76 percent). Numbers have greater significance than narratives in partnership decisions with the result that males were three times more likely to become partners than females.

In a shocking denouement to this study, Tocci reports that when she presented her conclusions to firm management, they declined to make any of the changes suggested, changes that included training to make the partners more aware of bias. Ms. Tocci observed, “[the firm] was getting dinged as one of the worst places for women to work, [but] their philosophy was that there will always be people who are willing to break their backs to work here.”

This indifference cannot be characterized as “unconscious bias.” It is a knowingdecision not to rectify a system that treats women unfairly.

Worse than firms’ tolerance of gender discrimination is their inability or unwillingness to stop sexual harassment. While it may seem unlikely lawyers would chose to ignore the law against sexual harassment, that often appears to be the case.

One therapist’s blog contains this description of a client’s real life experience: A partner in a one-on-one meeting with a female associate leans over and says, “I’d really love to kiss you right now.” Then he barrages her with e-mails about how hot she is. What does she do? She can try to ignore him, she can take her problem to Human Relations or she can leave the firm.

Ignoring him doesn’t solve anything because they’re working on a matter together and he’s determined. She can go to HR which will chill the harasser, but he’ll be angry and the word will eventually leak out that she complained about him. They won’t work together again, and that may hurt her career if he controls a lot of business or if they work in a specialized area with only a few other partners. But reporting sexual harassment is firm policy, and failing to do so up front may suggest she welcomed his conduct initially if she decides to report later when he escalates his actions, a common pattern in sexual harassment.

If she leaves without complaint, her chances of getting another job will be better because she hasn’t been branded a troublemaker.

I spent 17 years at BigLaw, ten of them as a partner. I recognize there are many reasons for gender disparity in the legal profession. The number one reason in my book: sexism.


Kate McGuinness is a lawyer who spent 17 years at Biglaw before becoming the general counsel of a Fortune 500 corporation. After leaving that position, she studied creative writing and is the author of a legal suspense novel Terminal Ambition that will be published in March 2012. She is an advocate for women and tweets as @K8McGuinness.

2 thoughts on “Women Battle Law Firm Bias

  1. Thank you for this information. I have been fighting the NY Cts where I worked for 30 yrs nd had a $
    Judge removed in 1993 for sex harassment and afterwards have fought unbelievable retaliation ,which had included my termination after 30 yrs working there and my filing 3 yes 3 protected actions. My case is now 8 yrs inFed Ct being hidden to protect their friends ..all most 50 plus adjs all made by the state court and none by me..as it is my case to prove .
    It goes on to continue to hide from public exposure..the facts of judicial sexual hostility and severe retaliation for nyone who dares to correct!
    I viewded this conduct from a courtroom for decades..just need or the American public to know my facts .Thank you for your interest..the media protect the courts from this exposure !

    • I am so sorry to hear about your situation. The old boys’ club certainly protects its members. I have been in a similar situation.

      Let me suggest two media outlets that might be very interested in your case. David Lat writes a daily blog called Above the Law (very appropriate for your situation)for the American Lawyer that goes out to thousands (if not tens of thousands) of subscribers. You can contact him at dlat@abovethelaw.com. Also, Vivia Chen writes a blog called The Careerist that focuses on women’s issues in law practice. You can contact her at vchen@alm.com.

      Best of luck to you.


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