Women in charge of law firms a rarity

September 22, 2013

In April, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, the international law firm that has one of the city’s most profitable lobby shops, became one of the 4 percent of major law firms that are led by women.

Chairwoman Kim Koopersmith said her appointment drew more positive attention than she expected — though the focus on gender came more from outside the firm than from her fellow partners who elected her.

“I was actually somewhat surprised it was so much about, ‘You’re the first woman,’ because the truth was at my firm, that wasn’t really what people were thinking about,” she said. “The discussion on who’d be the next chair had very little to do with the fact that I was a woman. It was about skills and strategy and direction ... It’ll be great when a woman elected to run a large law firm is not newsworthy.”

Still, women in Koopersmith’s position are rare. Despite internal efforts by nearly every top law firm to retain and promote women, the percentage of female lawyers in leadership positions remains stubbornly low.

Women lawyers account for about 15 percent of equity partners in the nation’s 200 largest law firms — a figure that has changed little in the past seven years — and women at that level earn only 89 percent of what their male counterparts make, according to an October survey by the National Association of Women Lawyers on retention and promotion of women in law firms.

“I think we have to be able to do better than what we have been doing,” said Koopersmith, whose first public remarks as chairwoman were to announce a major change in Akin Gump’s partnership structure that expanded the number of lawyers who must contribute capital to the firm’s cash reserves. “Having 16 to 17 percent women partners seems to me to be a level that is just not appropriate.”

The ratio of women to men in law schools is nearly 50/50, but that drops steadily in each stage of advancement within a law firm. Women go from making up 46 percent of associates to 35 percent of counsel, 26 percent of non-equity partners, 15 percent of equity partners and, finally, 4 percent of managing partners, the survey found.

Koopersmith said women will likely continue to have a higher attrition rate than men, but she is optimistic that women who do rise to partner will have more leadership opportunities.

“I do think women are increasingly playing roles in practice management and in firmwide opportunities,” she said. “And I believe that as a result of that, there are going to be more women in leadership roles.”

Catherine Ho covers law and lobbying for the Capital Business section of The Washington Post. She previously worked at the LA Daily Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the Detroit Free Press, the Wichita Eagle and the San Mateo County Times.
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