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An Enduring Ceiling

The split between the number of men and women entering the legal profession has balanced, but a partnership gap remains.


American law schools award JDs to men and women at a nearly even rate, and the percentage of female associates at law firms is approaching the ratio of men. But statistics indicate that a disparate number of men rise to leadership positions in the legal field.

In 2011, the National Association for Law Placement found that about 19 percent of partners at major law firms were women. The share of female equity partners also remains low: According to a study of the nation’s 200 largest law firms by the National Association of Women Lawyers, women account for only about 15 percent of all equity partners.

To Shainwald, these statistics reflect an unequivocal truth: “We don’t have equality in law firms, we don’t have equality in the court system, and we certainly don’t have equality in Congress.”

But many female attorneys disagree with this assessment, contending that discrimination no longer contributes to the partnership disparity. Instead, some ascribe the gender gap to an evolving profession.

“Many women go to law school and don’t end up pursuing law, or they’ll end up taking time off when their children are born, and it’s very hard for them to re-enter.” —Nancy Chemtob

Elise Bloom, a partner at Proskauer Rose LLP, believes that women are increasingly pursuing in- house counsel positions as a means to effect change within a corporation. “So many women are gravitating toward an in-house environment, because it provides a certain amount of fulfillment that a partnership at a law firm might not necessarily offer,” she says.

More commonly, female lawyers cite the demands of starting a family as the chief hurdle in continuing on the partnership track. Nancy Chemtob, founding partner of Chemtob Moss Forman & Talbert, LLP, notes, “Many women go to law school and don’t end up pursuing law, or they’ll end up taking time off when their children are born, and it’s very hard for them to re-enter.” She goes on to say that it is balancing a career with family, and not gender bias, that is the principal challenge to women re-entering the workplace after having a child.

Still, Lois Herzeca, a partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP, insists that a satisfying family life can coexist with a successful career. “Sometimes young women lawyers see all of these obstacles,” she remarks, “but I think it is incumbent on the women who have succeeded and have become partners to show them that it’s really doable.”

Herzeca notes that when she graduated from law school in 1979, female role models were scarce in the legal profession. “There weren’t really senior women at the time,” she says, “so I try to pay that back and mentor younger women.”

But she says an increase in woman partners will ultimately mirror changes in the larger economy. “There will be more women succeeding and rising to high levels in investment banks and corporate America, and when you have that, I think the women partnerships will follow.”

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