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Report: Law Firm Women's Initiatives Lack Strategy and Funding

In 2012, the National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL) released a report detailing the results of its first ever survey of women's initiatives in law firms. The goal was to discover what steps firms are taking to ensure that women attorneys have equal opportunities to pursue their careers and advance into leadership positions.

This groundbreaking study was an attempt to find solutions to the troubling results revealed by NAWL's Survey of Retention and Promotion of Women in Law Firms, which is published nearly every year, most recently in 2018.

Finding a scarcity of information about how women's initiatives function or whether, in fact, they have any impact on the retention or advancement of women attorneys, NAWL's 2012 report (its most recent on the subject, as of this writing) endeavored to provide greater insight into the financing, governance, structure and scope of activities of women's initiatives in the nation's 200 largest law firms.

As discussed in more detail below, most big law firms do have women's initiatives. However, the report found that the programs are often poorly funded and there is not enough focus on concrete strategies to enable women lawyers to rise into partnership positions in the firms.

Additionally, the report contains specific suggestions on improving women's initiatives, so that they can truly assist in retaining and advancing women attorneys.

Women's Initiatives Need Specific Goals and Greater Funding

Approximately 97% of large law firms have some type of women's initiative program, according to the 2012 report. While facially a promising statistic, a deeper look reveals that this is often a matter of appearances and there is not much behind the effort.

In surveying various women's initiatives, NAWL looked at what their actual activities are, how they are organized and funded, who participates, and how programs relate to other law firm policies and practices.

The two main takeaways from the survey results are:

1. Women's initiatives lack a specific mission or do not tie their mission to specific goals for advancement or particular types of programming.
2. Women's initiatives are significantly underfunded.

NAWL recommends that women's initiatives need to become more strategic in how they define their roles, the activities they offer, and how they measure their success, and that firms must dedicate more funding to these programs.

Defining a "Mission"

Fully 75% of women's initiative programs had a written mission statement; however, NAWL found that most of them lacked identification of specific objectives that could be tracked and achieved each year.

NAWL recommends that firms review their mission statements and revise them so that they include definite strategies and activities that are linked to the retention and advancement of women attorneys.


Networking appears to be the most prominent area of focus, with 95% of firms reporting that they offered networking programs within the firm and almost 90% of firms reporting that they offered networking programs for women attorneys with women clients.

According to 69% of firms, a networking event for women lawyers in the firm and clients was among the most effective ways to meet the mission of the women's initiative.

However, NAWL cautions that these events "are at best indirect ways for firms to advance their women lawyers. To the extent that the principal focus of women's initiatives is networking, they may not have as strong an impact on either retention of women lawyers or their advancement in the firm."

Other statistics on activities include:

1. 73% of firms monitor promotion rates for women lawyers compared to men lawyers.
2. 40% of firms monitor work assignments for women lawyers compared to men lawyers.
3. 60% of firms provide programming for leadership training.
4. 90% of firms report they provide a program focused on business development skills and activities.

The NAWL report recommends making these activities purposeful, i.e. using the monitoring results to make changes, and committing resources to a meaningful leadership and business development training program.

NAWL further recommends that a program such as "How to Become an Equity Partner," would be useful to educate women lawyers about that process, and should be given upon the first year of entry into the firm.

Eligibility and Participation of Women Attorneys

Roughly 70% of firms report that more than half of their women partners take part in the women's initiative, and about the same percentage of firms state that more than half of eligible women associates participate.

More than 90% of firms allow all women lawyers, regardless of job title or part-time status, to participate in women's initiative events.

Funding for Women's Initiatives

Of the top hundred firms, 80% had a formal budget for their women's initiative program, and those programs spent an average of $119,000 annually on activities for women's initiatives. Put in perspective, NAWL noted that this was less than the salary of one associate. Among the second hundred law firms, the annual budget was far less, at $48,000 on average.

Some additional troubling statistics on the relevance of the initiative programs to the firm as whole:

1. Only 42% of firms report that their women's initiative is part of the strategic plan of the firm.
2. Two-thirds of women's initiatives report directly to the firm's Diversity or Inclusion Committee rather than the Chair of the firm.
3. Less than 60% of firms report that their women's initiative is evaluated by the firm.
4. Of those firms that conduct an evaluation of their women's initiative, about half report that their evaluations are done informally, not in writing.

As noted previously, the NAWL report considers current funding levels to be extremely inadequate, and recommends that firms commit more substantial resources to women's initiative programs.

Other Reported Policies for the Retention of Women Attorneys

The firms surveyed also reported on additional policies in place to support the retention of women attorneys:

1. 95% of large firms report that they allow flexible work schedules.
2. Part-time work schedules are also provided by the overwhelming majority of firms (97%).
3. Anti-bias training is provided by 70% of all firms.


In a press statement, NAWL stressed that women's initiatives can be an effective vehicle "to make sure that women lawyers are being provided with fair and equitable assignments; are given appropriate origination credit; and are being groomed for succession and for leadership positions within the firm."

The statement also pointed out that strong women's affinity groups can have a positive business impact, and highlighted the need "to focus more clearly on concrete strategies and techniques to enable women lawyers to advance in firms."

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