Highlights (Lowlights?) of the ‘Glass Ceiling Report’

You may have seen that Law 360 released its Glass Ceiling Report last week, the yearly survey tracking the status of gender equity in the legal profession. The biggest piece of news in the report is that there isn’t much news at all. Despite the fact that more than half of law students are women, a far smaller share hold leadership positions in law firms and the numbers haven’t budged much over the past year.

Here are some statistics on the firms that responded to this year’s survey:

  • “At every level, the representation of women increased by at most about one percentage point.” At most.

  • Less than a quarter of equity partners are women, though representation among associates is nearing parity.

  • Women continue to be profoundly underrepresented in practice areas like intellectual property (women make up only 12% of appearances before the Patent Trial and Appeal Board) and appellate work.

  • Despite now making up 20% of the first-year-law-student body, women of color hold only 4% of equity partner positions, and that number has not changed in the past twelve months.

  • Retention continues to be a challenge to equity: “44% of attorneys who left their law firms for any reason in 2021 were female, despite the fact that they comprise only about 39% of all attorneys. Women of color were 15% of law firm departures, while they make up 10% of attorneys.

Have we depressed you enough? We are struggling to find a silver lining here, both for women in the profession and for the communicators who need to find ways to talk honestly about DEI efforts at their firms. But a few thoughts:

Given the intense strain the pandemic has put on women in particular, the fact that the numbers are flat instead of declining might actually be a weird kind of good news. It could have been worse? It may get better?

The pandemic has permanently changed how we and where we work, elevating flexibility in ways we never could have imagined. This could be creating new paths to leadership that just haven’t yet played out. That, coupled with growing pressure on firms to live up to their promises, may yield changes at the top in the next few years.

Though we won’t be holding our breath.