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Posted by: Namita Thakker on May 25, 2021

Each year since 2006, the National Association of Women Lawyers (“NAWL”) has released a Report on the Promotion and Retention of Women in Law Firms summarizing results from an annual survey conducted by NAWL. 

In short, few meaningful gains have been made in the last few years with respect to the advancement of women (and in particular, of women of color, women with disabilities, or LGBTQIA+ individuals) in law firms. For instance, in 2019, 21% of equity partners in Big Law were women, a measly 6% gain from 15 years ago. The glass ceiling isn’t on the ground floor (women no longer seem to have much of a barrier to entering the legal profession); rather, it’s in the elevator (women, especially minority women are not advancing to the highest positions within firms). 

We can hypothesize as to why this is the case. Karen M. Richardson, NAWL’s Executive Director, says women aren’t advancing because, “fewer and fewer firms [are] willing to put meaningful bias interruptions in place.” Best practices geared towards standardizing processes are more likely to be in place in evaluating candidates at the hiring stage, but these need to be expanded and entrenched later in the career cycle, when considering attorneys for assignments and promotions. 

That said, NAWL has already begun to investigate this issue concretely. In the last few years, the NAWL Annual Survey has inquired about, “policies, practices, and procedures that affect women and diverse attorneys at law firms,” and for the first time, survey data assesses the role of the diversity officer. Despite NAWL’s being the only national survey that collects this data in such detail, NAWL commits to collecting even more robust data on minority racial groups as the Survey. The coming years’ data will hopefully elucidate not only which interventions result in meaningful change but will also encourage broader adoption of such measures across the legal profession.  

Critically, when considered together, the Survey from this year (reflecting the last fiscal or calendar year, and thus the “normal” pre-pandemic conditions) and those from the next few years will be an excellent tool for examining the impact of the pandemic—and its consequence of saddling many working women with an even greater share of familial duties—on women’s advancement in law firms. 

The coming challenge will be to shift beyond widespread adoption of diversity and inclusion practices that merely exist to fill quotas. Clearly, a seat at the table is insufficient. Attorneys who are women or otherwise underrepresented must also have decision-making power, pay parity, and normalized alternative or reduced work schedules. Only with fundamental structural shifts can law firms find greater equality. 

Namita Thakker is a transactional attorney primarily providing general counsel services to small- to mid-size businesses; she serves as the Lawyers Club liaison to the National Association of Women Lawyers, and enjoys reading and being outdoors. 


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