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Why aren't women lawyers reaching the top of their firms in pay and respect?

Years ago, the American Bar Association saw cause for concern. There were lots of female lawyers but much fewer female partners. So they set up a commission to look into why.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to talk to Patricia Gillette, a member of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession. I was prompted into a discussion with her by a gender discrimination lawsuit filed yesterday in federal court in New York against Miami's Greenberg Traurig, one of the 250 largest law firms in the country.

The lawsuit made various bold claims against Greenberg.

FranFormer shareholder Francine Friedman Griesing alleges that Greenberg pays women less, promotes them at lower rates than men and virtually freezes them out from high-level managerial positions. She says women at the firm are denied their fair share of origination credit and internal referrals. Griesing also says although she was a partner, the firm's three tiered equity structure classified her into the lowest level, while less qualified men were put in the higher, more lucrative levels. She is seeking to represent a class of current and former women shareholders at the firm. 

 

Her claims of gender bias were concerns I've heard before, raised by women at various large law firms including Greenberg Traurig.

So I asked Patricia her thoughts on whether women are making real progress advancing at the country's law firms and whether pervasive gender inequity remains a problem. Patricia mentioned that the current ABA President Laurel Bellows initiated a gender equity task force this year to address bias against and equal pay for women in law.

Patricia said in recent years, the tiered partnership -- equity and non equity -- has been problem for women lawyers. It has been a way for large law firms to claim they have women partners but hide the fact that they are not promoting women into equity positions where they truly share in the profits and management decisions.

In October, the National Association of Women Lawyers came out with an revealing report:

  • It found that law firm structure has important effects on women's career paths and that they have a greater chance of becoming equity partner in one-tiered firms. Meanwhile, women are increasing clustered in positions with little opportunity for advancement in law firm leadership.

 

  • It also found women's compensation lags men's at all levels with the greatest discrepancy at the equity partner level, where women typically earn only 89% of what men make. The gap between the median compensation of male and female equity partners cannot be explained by differences in billable hours, total hours, or books of business.

 

Gillette says the ABA gender equity task force wants firms to rethink way they consider compensation, making it less subjective. A goal is to create a model law firm compensation policy to ensure women are paid equally to men.

“This has been sacred ground and firms don’t want anyone messing with compensation, but closed systems like Greenberg lead to mischief. We think putting transparency into compensation systems is imperative going forward,” she said.

Don't expect firms to readily buy in.

At Greenberg, all compensation decisions are made by CEO Richard Rosenbaum, with input from other shareholders.

Greenberg's Hilarie Bass said the firm’s compensation system has always been based on meritocracy that has nothing to do with gender. “We’re compensated based on value to clients and quality of our legal work. We prefer a closed system because it enables a more collegial atmosphere to exist.” Bass also said every year the the number of women who are big originators of new business increases as does the number of women who receive top compensation.

Still, with a closed system, it's difficult for women at the firm to confirm that to be true.

Gillette said this lawsuit may help Greenberg and other firms realize they need to work harder on getting more women into positions of leadership. While she acknowledges that there are some women lawyers who don't want to reach the top tier at their firms, she says many do. “We’ve been talking and begging firms to look at these issues for so long,” Gillette said. “I’m sorry it takes a lawsuit for firms to think about this but lawsuits are the only thing lawyers understand." 

Do you believe gender discrimination is present at big law firms? How much of pay inequity and lack of advancement is from women pulling back, seeking better work life balance, and how much of it is the way law firms are managed and structured?

 

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