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Have Law Firms Achieved Gender Parity? Partially.

By Vaidehi Mehta, Esq. | Last updated on

It should be no surprise to attorneys (or even just anyone that's seen Suits) that the legal profession has for a long time been dominated by men.

Eight years ago — when some of our very own staff was still in law school — the legal community largely applauded as a sign of progress the long-anticipated flip of JD gender demographics. Since then, women have slightly outpaced men in an academic discipline, currently making up 56% of students enrolled at American Bar Association-accredited law schools.

But of course, the job market doesn't perfectly track academia. The numbers of women employed as practicing lawyers has still been a significant minority — and it still is. But now, things have changed within the private law sector. New data shows that, for the first time in U.S. history, there are more women associates at law firms than men.

Slow But Steady Progress

The American Bar Association (ABA) surveys the demographics of the legal industry, keeping tabs on metrics like equal representation in the law.

Between 1950 and 1970 women made up less than 5% of all attorneys in the U.S. That started to increase after the 70s. The number made slow-but-steady progress into the turn of the millennium, reaching 31% women lawyers in 2010. And over the last thirteen years, it's continued to grow. Now, according to last year's ABA report, the percent of American women working as attorneys reached 38.3% across all law sectors.

Firms Find Equality ...

But within the subsector of law firms, the change has made even more progress.

The National Association for Law Placement (NALP) is a non-profit organization that serves as a central hub for information and resources related to legal careers, recruitment, and professional development. NALP conducts extensive research on legal hiring trends, salaries, and other aspects of the legal job market. It also publish reports and surveys that provide valuable insights for all stakeholders.

Last Tuesday, NALP released findings from a new survey showing that, for the first time, women outnumbered men practicing in law firms. The data showed that as of last year, 50.3% of U.S. associates were women.

... Sort Of

But it's important to note that the the gender makeup of law firms is still far from equal. That's because women still don't hold the same positions of power within firms that men do. While the balance of overall female associates may now be even with men, the numbers decrease up the hierarchy. According to the ABA's 2022 report, women made up only 22% percent of equity partners and 12% of managing partners. In other words, the percentage of women parters is only half of the percentage of women associates.

Experts attribute the gap to many things: bias, lack of mentorship and other ways to increase inclusion, and of course the social pressures that women are often put in to put their family over their career.

But progress is being made there, too — just more slowly. According to NALP's 2023 report, women made up 27.76% of all partners last year, which was an 1.1 percentage-point gain from the year before. This may sound small, but it's the largest year-over-year gain that NALP has reported to date.

Other Metrics: Other Minorities

It's also important to keep in mind that gender equality is just one of many metrics of inclusivity. Other types of diversity, although long disparate, has also been trending towards equality.

NALP data from last year shows that racial diversity also increased. In another record year-to-year increase, associates of color went from 28.35% in 2022 to 30.15% last in 2023. The percentage of non-white partners increased from 11.5% in 2022 to 12.1% in 2023.

Within the demographic intersection of women of color, these remain less than 5% of all partners. However, for the first time, Black women made up more than 1% of partners, and separately, so did Latina women.

On the other hand, the percentage of minority summer associates decreased very slightly, going from 43.02% in 2022 to 42.27% in 2023. Some worry that this might be indicative of a future slowing of the increase in diversity among associates, since law firms typically source a majority of their full-time associates from their summer classes (NALP even reported historic highs in offer and acceptance rates of summer associates within BigLaw last year).

NALP's executive director, Nikia Gray, remarked: “It took another 32 years for women to achieve equal, and just slightly greater, representation among associates. Real change is slow, hard, and imperceptible, but it does happen."

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