Women Attorneys Find Few Surprises in Report on Retention and Promotion of Women in Law Firms

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Women make up about half of law students and new associates, but their numbers drop dramatically at the top of law firms, according to survey results released Wednesday that women involved in managing Oklahoma law firms do not find surprising.

The survey found that women make up almost 45 percent of associates, but only 5 percent of managing partners, less than 16 percent of equity partners, 26 percent of non-equity partners, and hold only 16 percent of the seats on their firms' highest governing committees.

The first-ever National Association of Women Lawyers survey on retention and promotion of women in law firms reviewed data from a majority of the nation's top 200 firms.

"The survey did not contain any real surprises," said Brooke Murphy, president of the Crowe & Dunlevy law firm n Oklahoma City.

Gae Widdows, a shareholder in the Tulsa firm of Howard, Widdows and Bufogle, concurred.

"The Tulsa market, I would say, is probably very similar or would mirror what they're saying in their report," Widdows said.

Widdows found it interesting that, according to the report, the legal "pipeline" is full of women capable of accepting positions with large law firms, yet there has been little change in equity ownership or management slots.

"I don't think you're going to see that until the old-time male lawyers die off," she said of those who control larger silk stocking firms. "I think you're probably looking at another 10 to 15 years before that's going to happen."

Murphy found it notable that during the 1980s and 1990s the number of female equity partners ranged between 19 percent and 21 percent, quite a bit more than the 9.5 percent experienced before 1980, when far fewer women attended law school.

"There is still a big gap," she said, referring to the much greater representation of women among law students and associate attorneys.

Murphy found that two of the more dramatic findings were that only 5 percent of managing partners are women and that only 16 percent or so serve on top firm management committees.

"This goes to the pipeline of managing partners, because the firm's managing committees are kind of the training ground for the managing partners," she said.

Murphy and other women in Oklahoma law firm management said the inflexible structure of many firms makes it difficult for younger women to practice and have a family, which may be one reason why some of them drop out.

"If you can give that talented female attorney a little flexibility in those early child bearing and rearing years, that female attorney is likely to be one of your biggest dynamos later on," she said.

These top women lawyers hope firms will use the NAWL report to make necessary changes to increase the participation of women in law firms and other areas of the legal field. …