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Roundtable on women and the business of law (Part I)

October 11, 2019

As part of our launch of The Equity Project, Burford is honored to be joined by a group of outstanding lawyers and legal industry leaders who as Equity Project Champions are helping us bring attention to the need to provide economic incentives to help close the gender gap in law.

In September 2018, we interviewed some of our Equity Project Champions. We will share excerpts from their interviews and comments in a series of five posts.

We’re grateful to these and all of our Equity Project Champions for their invaluable support as well as their willingness to share their perspectives in their limited time.

Carolyn Lamm, Partner, White & Case

The Honorable Katherine B. Forrest, Partner, Cravath, Swaine & Moore

Dr. Nadine Herrmann, Managing Partner and Chair, EU and German Competition Law Practice, Quinn Emanuel

Nicole D. Galli, Managing Partner, Law Offices of N.D. Galli; Founder and President, Women Owned Law

Sue Prevezer QC, Chair, International Trial Practice, Quinn Emanuel

Roberta D. Liebenberg, Senior Partner, Fine, Kaplan and Black

Tara Lee, Co-Chair, Transnational Litigation Group, Quinn Emanuel

Alan Bryan, Senior Associate General Counsel, Walmart


From your perspective, what are the reasons the gender gap is so stark in the legal industry and so pronounced at senior levels?

Sue Prevezer: The gender gap in law is very well documented and I believe that the Equity Project is a truly innovative way of seeking to address the gender gap issues in litigation and arbitration, which is why I am very pleased to serve as one its champions.

Katherine Forrest: Representation discrepancies exist at all levels and in most industries, and can become magnified in more senior ranks. There are a multitude of factors that influence this: Too few women in leadership to serve as role models; limited access to influential leaders who sponsor a woman’s career growth and development; and the competing professional and personal demands that persist over the course of one’s career.

There are also cultural and structural forces that create additional challenges for women. Take, as one example, self-promotion. Oftentimes women are less likely than their male counterparts to “self-promote” or seek out opportunities for highly visible work that will position them for increased responsibility. This tendency stems from many places, including the ways in which women (and girls) are socialized to fear being labeled as “aggressive,” to the reality that women tend to bear more of the care-giving responsibilities at home—for both children and family elders. In addition, structurally, law firms and other professional service organizations have existed for many years in rewarding those who operate in the most visible positions—with credit for client work at many companies attributed to the origination or relationship partner. This confluence of factors, a lack of self-promotion in industries that reward visibility, can inevitably lead to outcomes where women are not represented at the most senior levels of the organization.

Nadine Herrmann: Intertwined and mutually exacerbating factors are at work. First, statistically, women are at a disadvantage in the early stages of a law firm career. It is essential from day one to build networks both within the firm and with clients. Even if you disregard “old boys’ networks” that are hard to replicate for women, this network-building is often interrupted when women start families. Second, at the equity partner level but also in the years before partnership, the job is very demanding in time and commitment.  It takes a lot of determination and grit to get through this.  In my experience, women are less likely to succeed without the benefit of female role models and mentors. Third, although this will be denied by all law firms, it is still a man’s world out there. Decisions about partnership admittance are usually taken by male-dominated committees who are, as a matter of practical experience, less likely to push for women.

Roberta Liebenberg: Contributing to the persistent gender pay gap at the partner level is the fact that women partners receive only 80% of the origination credit given to men. One of the reasons for this disparity is the fact that women are less likely to be chosen to serve as lead partners on matters. For example, a 2017 Acritas study found that women were chosen to act in lead roles only 17% of the time by male clients.

The gender pay gap also affects women partners’ ability to attain positions of real power and influence. Firms often appoint or elect their highest compensated partners to their most important committees, such as management and compensation. The underrepresentation of women on these influential committees, in turn, helps perpetuate the gender pay gap. Less than 5% of the chairs or managing partners of the AmLaw top 200 law firms are women.  Seventy percent of these firms have either no women or just one woman on the compensation committee, and 90% of the firms have no women of color on that committee. Several National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL) annual surveys underscore the importance of having more women on compensation and governance committees. In firms where there are two or more women on these committees, the disparity in compensation between the firm’s male and female equity partners is greatly reduced.

Alan Bryan: The ABA Presidential Initiative on Achieving Long-Term Careers for Women in Law just released results from months of research showing some of the reasons women leave private practice or the profession altogether. The results were not surprising: “denied advancement opportunities, [women] felt treated as a token, missed out on desirable assignment[s], lack of access to sponsors” to name just a few. The research also revealed a number of “gender realities” faced outside the profession, such as an imbalance in child-rearing and household duties.

Nicole Galli: For better or worse, the traditional law firm compensation scheme is set up so that the primary driver at the partner level is origination—it's about how much business you have and the clients you have. That's what gives you leverage. At the end of the day nothing else matters. You can be the best lawyer in the world, you can have the best outcomes, you can be highly respected, you can be well-regarded, you can be a total team player, you can be on management—you can do all of those things right, but without a book of business those other qualities alone typically will not be lead to the same results in compensation as having substantial business. In addition, generally only those individuals with large books command influence, and those without large books can be otherwise vulnerable to layoffs and other negative repercussions (at least without the protection of someone with a large book).

My personal belief is that until there is a significant competitive threat in the marketplace from alternative firms, such as women- and minority-owned firms, and other kinds of service providers, law firms won’t change, because they won’t have the incentive to change.

Carolyn Lamm: The gender wage gap emanates from a lack of total inclusion in the earliest years so that women can build the same client relationships and networks that men have. It really takes vigilance in terms of opening doors on the part of all who are more senior at the firm. It’s partly a biological function. In the early years of her time as an associate or even a young partner, a woman may have small children who are a priority, and as a result she devotes valuable time outside the firm and her substantive practice—not building relationships. She may not do as much networking, speaking or client-relationship-building as a man would be able to do. And some of it is athletic—for example, you really have to enjoy playing golf or tennis or something with clients. Or else find other joint endeavors to build relationships. It's just important.

If women get to a senior level and have very little business, they're not going to be happy and the firm's not going to be happy with them. But again, this is the ripple effect of non-inclusion from the outset. Many however have excelled with true grit, determination and excellence. It’s possible—just a challenge.

Tara Lee: I’ve been fielding some form of this question for years, because while the percentages of women in law school keep going up, the percentage of women in equity partner positions at law firms has stalled at under 20 percent. When I got this question as a senior associate, I half-joked that my peers had left mostly because women are smarter! The women I knew that left big law didn’t flee—they each went to something better. I genuinely thought that women just seemed to make smarter decisions about what kind of life-balance they would tolerate, whereas my male peers seemed more inclined to just follow the traditional path.

But now, a few decades on, the aggregate evidence suggests that self-selection and preference don’t entirely explain the statistics. Quinn’s youngest partner, IP partner Deepa Acharya (who made partner eight years out of law school, having had two babies and two five-month maternity leaves along the way) offered a different perspective: “Law firms should recognize that there are differences between men and women and see those as positives. The advancement and evaluation process at most firms doesn’t give enough weight to the things that women excel at: The ways that women, working moms especially, are just crazy efficient, and the way they connect with clients (more so now than ever, as more and more in-house clients are women).” Deepa’s answer made me appreciate that women have been leaving law firms not just for better life balance, but for jobs where their skills and talents are likely to be more valued.

Read more of The Equity Project Roundtable Q&A

Part I • Part II • Part III • Part IV

To read the full roundtable, download the Autumn 2018 Burford Quarterly.