Year in and year out, we watch law firm after law firm pay lip service to their commitment to diversity in the legal profession, with promises to put women attorneys on equal footing with their male counterparts, whether it be through hiring and retaining more women attorneys, promoting more women attorneys to equity partnership ranks, providing more leadership positions to women attorneys, or adopting more family-friendly policies to ensure that women attorneys are able to excel at their jobs while maintaining a stable work/life balance. Despite these continued assurances, and despite the fact that a number of firms have made great efforts to improve women’s stature in the law, there are only a few that offer women the chance to rise through the ranks to become major power players and to receive startlingly booming compensation.
Thanks to the Women in Law Empowerment Forum (WILEF), we have a way to find out which firms are on top when it comes to offering women attorneys the chance to perform on par with their male colleagues in terms of prestige and pay.
WILEF offers Biglaw firms with 300 or more lawyers practicing in the United States the chance to become Gold Standard certified, meaning that they must comply with four of six benchmarks that drive women lawyers to succeed in business development and leadership roles. Here are the criteria (two are mandatory):
- 25% of equity partners or, alternatively, 40% of the attorneys becoming equity partners during the past 12 months are women (mandatory)
- 10% of women equity partners are women of color or 4% of women equity partners are LGBT (mandatory)
- 20% of the firm and U.S. branch office heads are women
- 25% of the firm’s primary governance committee are women
- 25% of the firm’s compensation committee or its equivalent are women
- 20% of the top half of the firm’s equity partners in terms of compensation are women
This year, 29 firms made the cut, which is much lower than last year’s showing. What made the difference this year? WILEF increased the percentages necessary for firms to attain the first mandatory criteria (last year, 20% of equity partners or 33% of the attorneys becoming equity partners during the past 12 months had to be women; this is a difference of 5% and 7%, respecitvely). “At this time last year, we had 48 firms. It is obvious that upping the criteria made the difference. That said, upping the criteria was necessary as we move the needle forward,” said Elizabeth “Betiayn” Tursi, WILEF’s Global Chair. Biglaw firms continue to tout their commitment to women’s initiatives, yet this time, not even a third of the Am Law 100 appears on this list. Still more must be done when it comes to Biglaw firms raising the bar for their female attorneys.
Here are the 2021 recipients of Gold Standard certification (Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld and Vinson & Elkins are both new to the list this year):
Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld
Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney
Covington & Burling
Eversheds Sutherland (US)
Foley & Lardner
Freshfields Bruckhaus & Deringer US
Haynes and Boone
Hogan Lovells US
Holland & Hart
Morgan, Lewis & Bockius
Morrison & Foerster
Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart
O’Melveny & Myers
Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe
Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison
Shook, Hardy & Bacon
Simpson Thacher & Bartlett
Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom
Vinson & Elkins
Although WILEF doesn’t tell us how the firms stack up against one another in terms of the criteria needed for certification, we do know that nine firms met all six benchmarks. Those firms are: Ballard Spahr; Freshfields; Hogan Lovells; Holland & Hart; Kutak Rock; Littler; Morgan Lewis & Bockius; Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart; and Sidley Austin.
It’s also worth noting that six of these firms have received Gold Standard certification every year since 2011, when WILEF first created this award. Those firms are: Ballard Spahr; Holland & Hart; Littler; Morrison & Foerster; Shook, Hardy & Bacon; and Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom.
Here are some interesting facts about how this year’s certified firms did overall:
- 2% of the firms met the criterion of 25% women among U.S. equity partners; 45.3% of the firms met the criteria of 40%
- The average was 31% of women as US branch heads
- Women constituted 38% of the members of the firms’ governance committees
- Women constituted 35% of their compensation committees
- 20.6% of women were in the top half of equity partners, in terms of compensation
- 6.5% of certified firms met or exceeded the 10% threshold for women of color and 3.8% met or exceeded the 4% threshold for LGBT women
Congratulations to all of the firms that were Gold Standard certified this year. You have our thanks for rising to the top of the Biglaw pack when it comes to women’s empowerment. We still have a way to go but these firms are making strides in the right direction. Thank you for helping women shine in legal practice.
Staci Zaretsky is a senior editor at Above the Law, where she’s worked since 2011. She’d love to hear from you, so please feel free to email her with any tips, questions, comments, or critiques. You can follow her on Twitter or connect with her on LinkedIn.
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