Q&A with Daniella Isaacson: ALM Intelligence Pushes for Firms to Analyze Deeper Dive Diversity Metrics

Topics: Data Analytics, Diversity, Law Firms, Leadership, Q&A Interviews, Talent Development, Women’s Leadership Interviews & White Papers


The number of female lawyers in the Am Law 200 has flat-lined for the past five years at slightly more than 30% of the workforce. There is no disputing that this is an embarrassing statistic. As enforcers of equal opportunity, lawyers are at the forefront of the push for equality as a legal matter. At the same time, the legal industry is consistently ranked as one of the worst for hiring and retaining a diverse workforce and has failed to improve the bottom line despite efforts to change.

ALM Intelligence recently released a white paper on the state of gender diversity in Big Law, focusing on market metrics to illustrate the critical role that underlying data, such as practice area and location statistics by gender, may have on Big Law diversity. The report, Where Do We Go from Here?: Big Law’s Struggle with Recruiting and Retaining Female Talent, offers a new way to approach solving gender diversity in the legal industry and equips firms with a checklist of best practices to assist them in this endeavor.

Daniella Isaacson, Senior Legal Analyst at ALM Intelligence and author of the report, discussed the report’s findings with Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law (TWLL).

Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law: Tell us about your goals for the research.

Daniella Isaacson: ALM Intelligence has been collecting diversity data for a number of years, particularly at the industry level through our Female Scorecard. In preparing this report, I leveraged a variety of our internal data sets, as well as countless hours of interviewing and third-party research that enabled me to come to the conclusion that we all too often look at this problem in the aggregate. While I think that is useful, it doesn’t tell the whole story and may not accurately portray the extent of the problem.

For this report, I wanted to address the top line data, but focus on analyzing deeper dive metrics. I believe many firms are not yet doing this, or not yet doing it very well. Getting a better understanding of where the problems lie is the key to solving this long-term issue. The biggest caveat to the analysis was that the report looked at the market view, and should only be used as a proxy for firms looking internally. It’s critical for firms to be collecting, analyzing and acting on their own data.

TWLL: What are the key highlights from the report?

Daniella Isaacson: We had a couple of key takeaways. The first was that niche practice areas (including immigration, family law, health care, education and labor & employment), are the practice areas with the greatest proportion of women. However, top practice areas for Big Law (including litigation, corporate and banking) are not well-represented by female attorneys. This dichotomy is illustrated in the chart below.

As seen in the bubble chart, most of the niche practice areas I mentioned are not areas of focus for Big Law. This is an issue because in the majority of Big Law practice areas, women may suffer more from implicit bias by predominantly male teams and a lack of women in top leadership positions. In addition, the data implicates compensation. Practice areas to the right, including corporate, tax and litigation, see middling percentages of female headcount but have the highest compensation associated with them.

In addition, we also discovered that Big Law has a spotty hiring and retention record when it comes to hiring by location. Female talent is often underrepresented in states with large law school talent pools (like D.C.) and overrepresented in states with lower percentages of female law grads (like West Virginia). It’s hard to tell why that may be, but I think the bottom line is that firms need to analyze their diversity stats by location and availability and if needed, change their hiring and retention schema accordingly.

Daniella Isaacson, Senior Legal Analyst at ALM Intelligence

TWLL: What findings surprised you?

Daniella Isaacson: Unfortunately, many of these findings did not surprise me. In fact, I was a little bit saddened by how much these results seemed to affirm what all of us already suspected — diversity in Big Law is an issue much deeper than what’s just on the surface. On the other hand, there is also a silver lining.

I think it is a necessary exercise to start figuring out what solutions might move the needle; for example, tying bonuses or penalties to practice area diversity statistics or increasing mentorship and sponsorship opportunities in practice areas with low female headcount. On the location side, reviewing hiring and retention policies by location and increasing fellowship opportunities in areas with low percentages of female law graduates. All of these things may make a difference but are only truly effective when you know where you need the most help.

TWLLDo you have any other recommendations for how law firms can act on the information?

Daniella Isaacson: We included a best practices checklist as an addendum to the paper. It sets out some concrete actions that may help firms achieve gender parity. The recommendations are all listed by category, including: hiring, training, firm practice, family matters and metrics.

After publishing the white paper, I spoke to a wide variety of firms and attorneys about how they are using the paper and which best practices most grabbed their attention. What I heard was that law firms were using the report as a way to benchmark their own internal statistics so that they could get better board buy-in on diversity initiatives. One law firm planned to present to the board in which practice areas they beat the market average and in which they needed to focus their attentions. Having a market study was the tool they needed to be able to tell the board where they needed help.

One of the best practices that got the most attention was encouraging both men and women to take parental leave. I have spoken to numerous women about the onus maternity leave can put on Big Law attorneys when there is physically no other choice than to take time off for women while men continue to work and build their careers.

 You can downloaded a copy of this report, “Where Do We Go from Here?: Big Law’s Struggle with Recruiting and Retaining Female Talent” here.