Private law firms have for the most part held on to their tradition of male leadership and partnership. The most recent Law360 Glass Ceiling report validates this by citing the lack of significant progress at the top for female attorneys. In fact, the representation of women remains status quo. According to the report, women make up just under 36 percent of all attorneys, 45 percent of non-partners, associates, of counsel and staff attorneys, and 24 percent of all partners. At the top of private firms, four fifths of equity partners are men, ‘showing a continuing dearth of women at the highest firm level’.
Why so little progress to leadership for female attorneys in law firms?
I reached out to Elizabeth Anne “Betiayn” Tursi, Global Chair and Co-founder of the Women in Law Empowerment Forum (WILEF) to better understand the current status. The organization’s mission is to foster the retention and promotion of women in law firms and corporate law departments.
Bonnie Marcus: What’s your take on the new Glass Ceiling report?
Betiayn Tursi: I can tell you that the glass ceiling in law to me has become more of a concrete wall. It’s much more difficult to penetrate. You can break a glass ceiling with a hammer. But concrete is more difficult.
Marcus: Why do you think it’s become more difficult?
Tursi: There are a couple of reasons. And I deal only with large law firms, so bear with me. I think that the partnership pie is less likely to be cut up than it was years ago. They don’t make as many partners in law firms anymore. And most firms have two tiers. They have non-equity and equity.
Marcus: And I assume the few partnership appointments are more likely to go to men.
Tursi: Yes. Women do get relegated to non-equity status.
Marcus: I’ve always thought that the best path to partnership for attorneys was to have a senior partner take you under their wing and give you business. And one obstacle for women is that male partners prefer to work with male associates. Is this one reason why we see less progress for women?
Tursi: I think this is certainly going to be true if it isn’t now. I think #MeToo and #TimesUp will have a chilling effect on male partners even wanting to give business. And I’ve thought about this a long time and I’ve said it publicly. There’s a backlash. If male partners were hesitant before, they’re going to be super-hesitant now. They’ll be hesitant on steroids.
I am not a big proponent of #MeToo and #TimesUp for that reason. I think that the women are shooting themselves in the foot. And the women are going to be left on the sidelines. Men are going to be afraid to go to a closing dinner with a woman, to invite a woman to be on a deal team to go to dinner after working 15 hours in the office. And you know what? They’re right to be afraid. And that’s because they feel that they will be put in a compromising position. And women will suffer because of it.
Marcus: In this report, I’ve noticed that there have not been a lot of complaints or lawsuits filed in law firms about gender bias and sexual harassment. Why is that?
Tursi: The lawsuits that are being files are for pay discrimination. I’m in the legal profession 40 years. I’ve seen it all. Is there sexual harassment going on in law firms? There might be. Sure. But with social media today, who would ever want to go public with something like this? You’ll never get another job in a law firm. So I think the female attorneys that have faced sexual harassment just up and leave. They’re not going to file a lawsuit.