Still a boys’ club? Survey offers clues into law firm gender inequality gap

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REUTERS/Tobias Schwarz

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(Reuters) - We know what defines law firm culture and values is squishy, but those concepts are even squishier than we thought, at least when it comes to how men and women view a few key issues.

That’s one takeaway from a new survey of 752 lawyers - results that to me offer clues into why women remain persistently underrepresented in the partnership ranks.

To put it bluntly, male lawyers appear to care less than their female counterparts about diversity. They’re also less keen on transparency in compensation and origination credit, and less concerned that everyone has a voice within their firms.

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These are not the headline results of the survey by legal recruiter Major, Lindsey & Africa and Law360 Pulse, which asked lawyers to rank the cultural and professional values they found most important and how well they felt their firms reflected those priorities.

Their broader findings are non-controversial: Client service, good fiscal management and integrity topped the list of traits that all respondents said best embodied their firms’ cultures, as well as inspiring their most positive feelings about their workplaces.

Men and women were also equally indifferent to things like the importance of a firm’s heritage or its “elite” status.

What caught my attention though were a few references in the 15-page report to significant variations by gender in responding to select questions.

At my request, Ronald Wood, a managing director of Major, Lindsey & Africa’s partner practice group, shared some additional unpublished data.

I suspect that if the lawyers had been asked point-blank, “Do you support diversity?” almost all would have answered “yes” without hesitation.

Instead, the survey (among other things) asked lawyers to pick 10 traits out of 28 options that they’d like to see “more prominently reflected or valued in your firm’s culture.”

The question here wasn’t “diversity/equality yes or no?” but rather, how important is it?

That’s where the genders split, with 45% of women including diversity in their top 10 priorities, compared with 35% of men.

Moreover, 45% of women also said they’d like to see more emphasis placed on women and people of color occupying “significant positions of leadership” at their firms.

By contrast, only 26% of men picked this trait. For the other three-quarters, it didn’t make their top 10 list.

According to the National Association of Women Lawyers, only 12% of law firm managing partners are women, as are 28% of firm governance committee members and 27% of practice group leaders.

That’s … underwhelming.

To achieve more parity at the top, having the robust support of men strikes me as key, but the survey results suggest that the majority are, at best, indifferent.

On one level, I get it – if more leadership roles go to women and people of color, that means fewer will go to white men. But I’d also like to think that basic fairness, as well as a recognition that different points of view bring strength, would encourage more men to enthusiastically support the cause.

Apparently they’re not quite there yet.

Likewise, only 24% of men tagged “Compensation and other important decisions are transparent to all partners” as something they think deserves more prominence at their firms.

However, 37% of women prioritized greater transparency – which, perhaps not coincidentally, is one way to promote pay equity.

Per the National Association of Women Lawyers, female partners earn 78% of what their male colleagues earn. If partner-level salary data was more openly available, maybe that wouldn’t be the case. But here again, most men don’t seem as concerned about elevating the issue.

Women also backed more sharing of origination credit, with 31% flagging it as a top-10 priority versus 23% of men. More women – 33% – also felt it was important that their firm listen to everyone, compared to 25% of men.

Another question asked what traits inspire lawyers’ most negative feelings about their firms.

More than half of women – 51% – cited profit-mindedness, or “linking bonus and promotion eligibility to high billing hour requirements.”

Men, on the other hand, didn’t seem as troubled by a focus on profits, with 38% flagging it as one of their least-favorite traits. That’s not insignificant, but it’s still 13 points less than women.

Another interesting nugget: Respondents were asked to identify the top 10 characteristics of their firm’s culture. A hefty 47% of men said their firms had policies that “support work-life balance,” but only 40% of women cited such programs.

Is this because the women surveyed all happened to work at firms with less generous policies? I suspect not, and that work-life balance may look different to women – who still tend to bear primary responsibility for child-rearing – than men.

At a granular level, the survey results leave me feeling somewhat dispirited about prospects for gender equality in the legal profession. Male lawyers may say the right things publicly, but when queried indirectly and anonymously, it’s still a boys’ club.

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Jenna Greene writes about legal business and culture, taking a broad look at trends in the profession, faces behind the cases, and quirky courtroom dramas. A longtime chronicler of the legal industry and high-profile litigation, she lives in Northern California. Reach Greene at jenna.greene@thomsonreuters.com