Inaugural McKinsey & Co. Women in the Workplace 2017 Legal Study: Law Firms Taking Important Steps, But Still Need to Improve on Gender Equality

Topics: Client Relations, Diversity, Efficiency, Law Firms, Surveys, Talent Development, Thomson Reuters, Women’s Leadership Blog Posts

women in the workplace

NEW YORK — Today McKinsey & Company releases its inaugural study of law firms, which was championed by Thomson Reuters through its recruitment of firms to participate in the research. The study — conducted as part of McKinsey and LeanIn.Org’s broader Women in the Workplace 2017 research — found that while many law firms surveyed are taking important steps in their efforts to increase gender equality, the legal industry overall has many areas for improvement to more fully remove the impediments to career advancement faced by women lawyers today.

The study shows that while the legal industry starts at near parity between women and men at the associate levels, career advancement for women soon begins to follow a different path.

Findings in the study found that women in the legal industry receive first-time promotions 11% less often than men; female lawyers are 29% less likely to win promotion at the first level of partnership than men; and at the equity partner level in law firms, women are 43% more likely to leave the firm than men, a much higher gap that in other industries.

Indeed, based on their experiences shared in the survey, female attorneys feel they are forced to make trade-offs between career success and personal lives — and, almost half of them stated that prioritizing work-life balance is the greatest threat to their professional success.

women in the workplace

Ora Fisher, Vice Chair of Latham & Watkins

I am proud that Thomson Reuters played a strong role in this revealing study. We were honored to do our part by leading law firm recruitment, facilitating access to 23 law firms (mostly in the Am Law 100) as well as to those firms’ diversity leaders. Additionally, more than 2,500 respondents completed an employee survey about their experiences regarding gender, opportunity, career and work-life issues. The survey was conducted during the second quarter of 2017.

As Susan Taylor Martin, President of Thomson Reuters Legal, said last night during the study’s launch event, “It’s not just the ‘right thing’ to have more women leaders in the workplace, it’s good business… a more diverse workforce is a more innovative, productive and creative workforce that drives bottom line results and attracts the best and brightest talent.” (As the report points out, eliminating the gender gap in the US labor market would add $4.3 trillion to annual GDP in 2025.)

Other prominent law firm leaders praised the value of the study too, including Ora Fisher, Vice Chair of Latham & Watkins, who said: “Latham & Watkins is committed to fostering diversity and inclusion and an overall sense of belonging within the firm, as well as within the broader industry as a whole. With hard numbers we can have informed discussions about the ways the industry has, or has not, become more diverse and inclusive. Data keeps us honest, gives us focus, spurs us to be creative, and empowers us to do more. Ultimately the data will enable us to bring about real, positive change.”

As last night’s event made clear, while the legal industry should take pride in the progress it has made in some areas of balancing gender disparity, much more needs to be done, including addressing attrition, external hiring and improving employee perceptions and experiences related to fostering an inclusive workplace.

That’s why I was also very pleased that the report concludes with recommendations and a suggested course of action for law firm leaders to help improve gender equity outcomes at their firms. These recommendations include such actions as making flexible work programs a more concrete and feasible option; strengthening coaching and formal sponsorships programs within the firm; and championing gender parity and diversity as an achievable goal across the firm, especially at the senior leadership levels.

Tina McKeon, a Partner and Diversity & Inclusion Co-Chair at Kilpatrick Townsend

All of these recommendations and action items have one thing in common. They show — and the report’s survey data bears out — that it’s often not enough for a firm to have these programs in place if female lawyers or lawyers of color think that utilizing them will hurt their careers. As the report states, “Programs and policies may demonstrate a commitment to equality, but they won’t deliver the required outcomes on their own. Getting male and female attorneys at all levels of the firm to own this issue together appears to be the only path to making a change toward gender equality in law firms.”

Indeed, the commitment to gender equality lies with all of us — and we all have work to do. As Tina McKeon, a Partner and Diversity & Inclusion Co-Chair at Kilpatrick Townsend, persuasively urges:

“Stretch to be of service every day of your career. Stretch to learn from your own career setbacks, which are inevitable. Stretch to recognize and eliminate your own biases and the biases within the profession, which are also inevitable. If you do these things, you will do well personally, and you will make the legal profession better.”

You can download a copy of the report at the McKinsey website.