When Sarah Hewitt started out as an M&A lawyer, she faced closed doors. Bathroom doors.
"The men used to go into the men's room to decide how they were going to respond to deal terms or how they were going to negotiate, and I obviously couldn't go into the men's room with them," says Hewitt, now co-chair of the mergers and acquisitions group at Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis.
So Hewitt, who now works on deals in communications, technology, energy and other industries, would wait outside the door.
Not any longer. Hewitt is one of a league of women lawyers who have emerged as leaders in mergers and acquisitions practices. Many of them started their careers in the 1980s and 1990s, and most if not all of their colleagues were men. Now they are leading practice groups at their firms, or heading up deal teams on major transactions. And every so often, they're leading deal teams comprised entirely of women. At Cravath, Swaine & Moore, a female M&A lawyer has taken leadership as presiding partner. Faiza Saeed became the first woman to assume that post in January, after leading the firm's M&A practice for four years. (Saeed declined to be interviewed for this story.)Things are changing for women in M&A. But they're changing slowly. M&A work can pose particular challenges for women's advancement, as it carries the cultural remnants of a traditionally male-dominated practice, and requires all-nighters and a willingness to drop everything, which can be difficult to balance with the expectations of motherhood.
And with top M&A lawyers commanding top pay, the barriers to success for women carry a huge potential cost. There's still implicit gender bias and outright sexism. And let's face it: The women who have managed to dominate in this field are exceptional. They didn't ride a wave of change; they forced their way past a tide of obstacles.
A 2016 survey of more than 16,500 lawyers, led by the American Bar Association's Women in M&A Task Force, found that 40 percent of first- and second-year M&A associates were women, and only 16 percent of senior M&A partners were women. Overall, women made up 36 percent of lawyers surveyed, but only 30 percent of M&A lawyers surveyed.
That's a slight uptick since 2014, when the task force conducted a similar survey and found that 35 percent of lawyers—and 27 percent of M&A lawyers—were women.
"The good news is that there is some improvement, and I think it goes to show that if there is some effort put behind these things it can make a difference," says Jennifer Muller of Houlihan Lokey, who chairs the ABA task force and helped conduct the study.
Muller says the proportion of women had been stagnant for some time. After the first few women had broken into M&A law, she says, the next generation may have thought the work was done. But it takes additional effort to push past having just one or two women in the boardroom or at the deal table.
Meanwhile, this practice is one of the higher-paying areas of law, and the lower numbers of women in M&A have contributed to the pay gap between men and women in law. According to Major Lindsey & Africa and ALM Intelligence's 2016 Partner Compensation Survey, corporate partners, which include venture capital, finance and M&A lawyers, had the highest average compensation, at $1.055 million. The same survey found that in 2016, male partners made 44 percent more than female partners on average.