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Busting Myths about the Barriers Women and Minority Lawyers Face in the Legal Profession 

By Sheryl L. Axelrod

As a result of bias, women and minorities face great barriers to advancement in the profession. 

          A.      The barriers facing women[1][1] 

• Since the mid-1980’s, more than 40% of law school graduates have been women.  Absent bias, one would expect law firms to be promoting women and men at nearly the same rate.  However, among the attorneys law firms promote to equity partner, less than 20% are women.  Thus, law firms are promoting less than half the percentage of women to equity partner that they should.[2][2] 

• Firms laterally hire men into equity partnership positions much more often than women. 

• Women equity partners are paid 85%-89% of what male equity partners are paid. 

• Women are credited for roughly 8% out of every 10% of client billings for which men get credit.

Many people assume that women are promoted and paid less in the profession because they work fewer hours.  That has been proven untrue by an excellent study on the subject, "Compensation in Law Firms: Why Women Equity Partners Are Compensated Less for the Same Billable Hours and Business Origination as Male Equity Partners" by Harry Keshet, PhD. & Angela A. Meyer, PhD., PE. If you go to:, you can download a free copy of the Executive Summary of it. In it, you learn that: "compensation is gender based with male equity partners receiving more compensation than women equity partners do. This fact is true when women and male equity partners bill the same number of hours, generate the same levels of origination, have the same level of law firm tenure and work in the same size of law firms."[3][3]

Thus, the fact women in the profession are not being paid the same as men -- and are not being equally credited for the business they generate and as a corollary to that, are not being promoted equally to equity partnership -- isn't because they're not putting in as many hours.

Another myth surrounding the topic is the notion that women are responsible for the pay gap because they aren't as confident as their male counterparts and aren't equally negotiating for higher pay as much as men.  The data emphatically shows that the problem isn't that women lack confidence, but that men and women are unconsciously harsher to women who seek higher pay as compared to men.  See:

From the piece, we learn that: "[i]t’s not that men are immune from being seen as tough or unlikeable when they make aggressive demands. Attempting to negotiate can make anyone seem less nice, Bowles repeatedly found. But it’s only women who subsequently suffer a penalty: people report that they would be less inclined to work with them, be it as coworkers, subordinates, or bosses. The effect is especially strong, Bowles has found, when people observe women who engage in salary negotiations."

          B.      The barriers facing minorities

While minority lawyers make up 13.9% of the lawyers at the largest  law firms,[4][4] male minorities represent 6% of the equity partners in the AmLaw 100 and 4% of the equity partners in the second hundred largest law firms.  Female minorities represent 2% of the equity partners in both the AmLaw 100 and the second hundred largest law firms.  Thus, approximately 6-8% of equity partners at major law firms are minorities, whereas minorities represent nearly 14% of the practicing lawyers at them.[5][5]  Firms are promoting roughly half as many minority lawyers to partnership as they should, and even less female minority lawyers.

There is no difference in competency.  Lawyers of color are not being fairly evaluated. A great study revealing this, "Written in Black & White: Exploring Confirmation Bias in Racialized Perceptions of Writing Skills," is at:

The paper summarizes an eye opening study on confirmation bias, the fact that when people unconsciously disfavor a group, they then confirm their unconscious beliefs through their actions.  This study indicates that when people unconsciously think less of a certain group and expect to find a poorer work product from it, they find just that. Doing so confirms their prejudice against them as less capable. Likewise, when people unconsciously think more of a certain group and expect to find a better product from it, they find just that and in the process, confirm their bias against them as more capable.

The study underscores the importance of addressing and minimizing unconscious bias. In the study, a research memo was drafted that purported to be by a junior associate. Minor spelling and grammatical mistakes to errors in analysis were inserted into it on purpose. The memo was then distributed to 60 partners from 22 firms who had agreed to participate in a "writing analysis study". The memo was sent to the 60 partners as having been written by Thomas Meyer, a 3rd year associate who graduated from NYU, but on half (30), Thomas Meyer was identified as a Caucasian and on the other half (the other 30), he was identified as an African American. The 60 partners were asked to edit the memo for all factual, technical, and substantive errors, and to rate its overall quality from 1 (the worst) to 5 (the best).

The partners found more errors in the exact same memo written by the hypothetical "African American" Thomas Meyer, and they wrote more positive comments on the piece that was by the hypothetical "Caucasian" Thomas Meyer. The “Caucasian” Thomas Meyer comments were generally positive (“generally good writer but needs to work on…," “has potential,” etc.) whereas the feedback for “African American” Thomas Meyer included that he “needs lots of work" and that his memo was “average at best.” The hypothetical "African American" Thomas Meyer got an average score of 3.2 out of 5 on his memo as compared to a 4.1 out of 5 rating that was given for the exact same piece by the "Caucasian" Thomas Meyer. As we see in other studies on unconscious bias, there was no significant correlation between the race/ethnicity or gender of the partners and the amount of errors they saw in the memo.

In short, when we unconsciously think less of a certain group and expect to find a poorer work product from it, we find just that. Doing so confirms our prejudice against them as less capable. Likewise, when we unconsciously think more of a certain group and expect to find a better product from it, we find just that and in the process, confirm our bias against them as more capable.

To get a fuller picture of what is happening, also watch this outstanding video on unconscious racial bias:  

Sheryl L. Axelrod, President of The Axelrod Firm PC, a NAMWOLF law firm handling matters in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, provides strategic, results-driven advice and representation to companies concerning their employment, general and product liability, commercial, and appellate litigation matters.  While only 5% of lawyers are recognized by their peers as Super Lawyers, Ms. Axelrod was not only recognized as a Super Lawyer but rated one of the Top 50 Women Super Lawyers in Pennsylvania for the past three years in a row and selected a 2013 Top Rated Lawyer in Labor & Employment by American Lawyer Media and Martindale-Hubbell.  She is Co-Chair of the NAMWOLF Advocacy Committee.

[1][1] In Section A, other than as specified, the data cited comes from the “Report of the Eighth Annual NAWL National Survey on Retention and Promotion of Women in Law Firms.”

[2][2]  Also, large law firms are extremely inhospitable places for women and minorities, who accordingly leave them in large numbers. 

[3][3]  These are top notch researchers who performed a large and comprehensive study of 915 male respondents and 814 female respondents. 1269 were white, 420 were non-white, 856 were equity partners, 342 were non-equity partners, and 463 were associates.

[4][4] This is according to the largest 228 law firms in the country that that responded to the survey “2013 Diversity Scorecard: Firms Regain Lost Ground.”

[5][5] The surveys are not completely aligned.  One measured the number of minority lawyers at the largest 228 law firms in the country that provided their data.  That same survey did not break out the number of minority male and female lawyers those firms had.  The other was a survey of the largest 100 and 200 law firms in the country.  However, the data still paints a picture of the barriers minorities face in the profession.

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