1980s-Style Sexism Still a Drag on Women in Big Law

I don’t know whether to be buoyed or depressed by the latest findings about female lawyers in Big Law.

Let’s start with the cheery news: Contrary to popular belief, women are remarkably bullish about their Big Law experience, according to a recently released report by legal intelligence firm Leopard Solutions.

Almost half (48%) of respondents to the survey on women in Big Law say they see themselves on the partner track or have already achieved that pinnacle. Some 60% also claim their goals have stayed intact since joining their firm. And 78% say partners at their firm “totally or somewhat valued their work.”

Women account for over half of students in the nation’s law schools and dominate the junior class at some top firms. And Leopard reports that in 2022, women made up 41% of partner promotions in Big Law overall.

So it’s only logical that in 10 years women will achieve equity in the partnership ranks, right?

Not so fast. The flip side is that a deep strain of discontent remains among women in Big Law. A startling 90% of respondents felt “frustrated with the support they had received from their law firms,” and only 26% agreed that assignments at their firm were allocated fairly.

That dissatisfaction is manifested in the ever-diminishing number of women who stick with Big Law for the long haul. While men tended to trade one major firm for another, women dropped out of Big Law entirely: for 2022, the ratio was 77 men to 23 women for those who moved laterally into another big firm. Moreover, women left in mid-career, essentially ceding partnership opportunities to men.

And though the rate for women partners (27%) and heads of firms (17%) are at an all-time high, those numbers are hardly spectacular.

So the survey’s responses left me scratching my head. Are women on an upswing? Or are they stuck and miserable as ever?

The short answer is that bro culture dominates, and that remains a huge problem for women’s advancement. “Sexism is alive and well in Big Law,” Laura Leopard, founder and CEO of the company, told me. “And outside of the firm and in the courtroom, too.” (The survey notes that 70% of female litigators encountered gender bias in court.)

“Sexism absolutely persists,” a female partner at a major firm in New York told me. She added that’s particularly true in client development. “Even when in-house counsel identifies a woman partner as the relationship partner, she can be undermined by internal firm politics.”

“Women lawyers are just as motivated and ambitious as men, but they face a much tougher path to advance and succeed,” Roberta Liebenberg, the former chair of the American Bar Association’s Commission on Women in the Profession, said. “Unless law firm leaders truly commit themselves to understanding and ameliorating these disparities, women will vote with their feet.”

Though both sexes cited work/life balance as a primary factor in ditching their Big Law jobs, “women face a completely different set of obstacles,” Leopard added, noting lack of opportunity, unconscious bias, and the dearth of recognition for their work. “We’ve all faced sexism, but I was shocked that it could be so blatant and insidious.”

What’s more, motherhood remains “a big factor” in hindering careers in Big Law—mainly, in how firms deal with the issue. Despite the proliferation of generous parental leaves in law firms, “a lot of women are still afraid to take maternity leave,” Leopard said, “which underscores how [the profession] isn’t as progressive as we think.”

So how disillusioned are women with their Big Law careers? The survey noted that “only 58% responded yes” to the question whether they’d want their daughters to pursue a legal career. (Not to quibble, but I thought that was a surprisingly high rate of endorsement.) “For those who said no, the reasons cited were that they did not like what they were still experiencing—sexism. The same experiences their mothers had in the 80s.”

Back to the sexism of the ‘80s? Ouch. Haven’t we attained at least a higher level of sexism in the last 40 years?

So back to my original query: What’s with the positivity that so many women expressed in parts of the survey? One word leaps to mind: Denial. It seems women are trying mightily to make themselves feel better by suggesting they’re on track and everything is going according to plan.

“There are inconsistencies in their responses to a few of these questions,” Leopard admitted. “I think some of them are indeed denying what they see.” Though some denied they’ve personally experienced bias, “they’ll say they’ve seen it in other practice areas,” she explained. “Many people downplay behaviors and situations that are uncomfortable for them. They may not want to process or deal with it, so they move past it.”

But one key takeaway, according to Leopard, is that there are now differences in law firms and that it behooves women to find the right one. “I think some firms are making good strides and helping women to see and attain partnership,” she said. “I also think that some firms do not, and put up hurdles for women and others succeed. It is not a level playing field overall, but each firm has their own story and challenges.”

That’s a polite way of saying that Big Law has hardly evolved.

Vivia Chen ’78 is an opinon writer at Bloomberg where she writes the “Unfiltered” column. An award-winning journalist with over 20 years of experience, she is also a former corporate lawyer. Her opinion writing has been honored by The Society of American Business Editors and Writers, The American Society of Business Publication Editors and the Jesse H. Neal Awards. Lawyers of Color also named Vivia to its 2020 Power List. You can follow Vivia on Twitter (@ViviaChen) and LinkedIn. The original version of this article appeared in Bloomberg Law.