How Can Female Attorneys Avoid Being an Underpaid Non-Partner Track Associate?

by Kaitlin Edleman | March 18, 2014

Earlier this month,  the National Association of Women Lawyers released its “Report of the Eight Annual NAWL National Survey on Retention and Promotion of Women in Law Firms,” a survey of 200 of the largest law firms in the United States for 2013, that mirrored the findings in Vault’s 2013 Law Firm Associate Survey. While some of the results were depressing, possible gender pay gap, barriers to promotion, the NAWL Report also highlighted some indicators that female attorneys should take note of when looking for their dream firm job.

Friends in High Places

The NAWL Report found that of the 31 firms surveyed with two or women on the governance committee, female equity partners made 95 percent of what male equity partners made. Conversely, when there were fewer than two women on the governance committee, female equity partners made only 85 percent of what male equity partners made.

Similar to NAWL’s findings on firm governance committees, when two or more women served on firm compensation committees, the gender pay gap was virtually eliminated. In contrast, women equity partners only earned 89 percent of what male equity partners earned when fewer than two women were on the compensation committee.

Female attorneys should consider this trend while job hunting. Firms often note the committees on which their attorneys serve on their websites. Additionally, Vault’s Diversity Rankings for Women and the diversity comments in Vault’s law firm profiles provide insight into a firm’s governance structure. Often, associates will provide the inside scoop on women in positions of authority. For example, an associate at Carlton Fields Jorden Burt stated, “I have not found a better law firm for women. We truly have a lot of strong women in leadership positions, and put a lot of effort into hiring and retaining women and minorities." A quick scan of the make-up of the governance and compensation committees could predict whether or not female attorneys are destined for a career of pay inequality.    

Partnership Potential

Ten percent of the firms surveyed by NAWL found that a common obstacle to promotion for female attorneys was work-life balance. Female attorneys seeking to maintain contact with their children and families often switch to a part-time schedule, but unfortunately, 12 percent of the firm’s surveyed by NAWL do not allow part-time attorneys to be promoted to equity partnership. For women at these firms, they are essentially forced to choose between becoming an equity partner and raising their children.  

Even if female attorneys have no plans to start a family while they are job-hunting, they may in the future, or heck, they may just want to eventually work part-time. Female firm seekers should evaluate their own career goals, and if those goals include promotion to partner, then they may wish to consider firms that allow part-time associates to make partner and firms that do not penalize women for taking maternity leave.

Firms may post these policies on their websites, but it is best to hear about them directly from associates. An associate at Cantey & Hanger raved, “The firm has a generous maternity policy, and women who take leave or go part time due to maternity will have an opportunity to make partner." An associate at Miles & Stockbridge P.C. found that part-time female attorneys still hold positions of authority stating, “The head of our practice group is a female who (technically) works part-time to raise two children." Job hunting female attorneys should also take note of how and when female partners were promoted in the firm such as Joan Fortin of Bernstein, Shur, Sawyer & Nelson who was promoted to partner while on maternity leave.  

While the NAWL Report highlighted some dismal trends for ladies in law firms, women attorneys can take proactive steps to avoid being underpaid or relegated to lower level positions for their entire careers. Preliminary research regarding members of the governance and compensation committees and policies regarding the path to partnership and maternity leave may allow female attorneys to choose a firm that best matches their financial and career goals.

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Read More:

NAWL Survey Results
What’s Really Happening with Ladies in the Law? Observations from NAWL and Vault Surveys
BigLaw, Mommies & Maternity Leave: Benefit for All or Only T
Vault’s 2014 Diversity Rankings for Women

Filed Under: Interviewing | Job Search | Law | Workplace Issues


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