There is a fierce battle for talent underway in American law firms that could benefit women lawyers. According to Citi Private Bank, starting in 2017, law firms added more equity partners through lateral hires than from internal promotions. Citi called the phenomenon “a fundamental shift in how firms plan to drive revenue growth in the years ahead.” Because firms are competing to recruit the best talent away from other firms, employers should have stronger incentives than ever to retain their most valued lawyers and to discourage them from looking for greener pastures at other firms or in-house.
At the same time, clients are demanding that law firms staff their matters with more diverse teams. In January 2019, the general counsel and chief legal officers of 170 companies published an open letter to big law firms stating that their companies will prioritize their legal spend on law firms that commit to diversity and inclusion. Since then, the group has continued its advocacy for more diversity.
These factors have created a marketplace in which successful women lawyers have more bargaining power than ever before. In fact, we are already seeing effects that prove the point. The 60 firms on the 2019 Working Mother Best Law Firms for Women list averaged 37 percent women among new equity partners, compared with only 27 percent women five years ago. The percentage of women lawyers in the ranks of the Best Firms’ most highly compensated partners also jumped from 11 percent in 2014 to 15 percent in 2019.
The impact on women lawyers
1. Women have more clout than in the past. The women who will benefit the most from the battle for talent will be the ones who are highly productive. Keith Wetmore, a managing director at recruiting giant Major, Lindsey & Africa and former chair of Morrison & Foerster, says women must make themselves “the lawyers who drive the economics of their firms.” He advises women to be wary about nonbillable time. “Don’t feel obliged to volunteer every time to chair the summer program or other committees,” Wetmore says.
2. Women might more readily change firms when there is evidence they are being treated unfairly,such as the increasing data on gender pay disparity. Major, Lindsey & Africa’s 2018 Partner Compensation Survey reported a 53 percent difference between male and female partner compensation. MLA said that only some of that can be explained by differences in originations, credits to the lawyers who bring in client work and hourly rates. The rest might point to underlying bias. If women lawyers are uncertain about whether their firms are treating them fairly, Wetmore encourages them to test the market by talking to recruiters or contacts at other firms. Doing so is not a commitment to make a lateral move and is not evidence of infidelity. By testing the market, women can confirm that their current firm is treating them reasonably well and feel better about staying put. They might also get data to negotiate a fairer deal with their current firm. Information is power, especially in a highly competitive marketplace.