Forum Magazine: New McKinsey Research – Men and Women Report Wildly Different Perceptions of Diversity Challenges within the Legal Industry

Topics: Client Relations, Forum Magazine, Leadership, Talent Development, Thomson Reuters, Women’s Leadership Interviews & White Papers


For the past three years, consulting firm McKinsey & Company has partnered with LeanIn.Org to conduct research on gender equality at work. This year, Thomson Reuters, Legal championed an added dimension to the research – one focused specifically on women in law firms. It led the recruitment of 23 mostly Am Law 100 firms into the study, facilitating access to those firms’ diversity leaders who provided information about their policies, pipelines and programs. Additionally, more than 2,500 respondents completed an employee survey about their experiences regarding gender, opportunity, career and work-life issues.

The research unearthed large discrepancies between the perceptions of men and women regarding the fairness of work assignments, relationships with senior partners and progress on diversity issues. The published report was officially launched at an event hosted by Thomson Reuters in the fall of 2017, which closely followed release of the broader McKinsey and LeanIn.Org’s “Women in the Workplace 2017” research.

The Thomson Reuters launch event was attended by many survey participants, corporate in-house attorneys, and other industry influencers. The evening featured a presentation by McKinsey highlighting the findings, followed by a panel of law firm leaders and Thomson Reuters EVP and general counsel Deirdre Stanley to discuss the results.

Here to discuss additional findings from the research, published here for the first time, are McKinsey partner Marc Brodherson and McKinsey engagement manager Laura McGee. They sat down with Charlotte Rushton, managing director of US Law Firms for Thomson Reuters. 

CHARLOTTE RUSHTON: Some of the more interesting aspects of these additional research findings focus on assignments. Forty-four percent of attorneys report an open assignment system, while 35% say their firms use both open and formal systems. Only 44% of women said assignments at their firms were fair, compared with 57% of men. What can firms do to ensure that assignments are fair, and that they are perceived as such?

MARC BRODHERSON: There are a number of points in the research where we see something you can measure objectively, like the type of assignment system, and then within that objective reality we have radically different perceptions and experiences.

Our research shows that tracking and accountability are critical. Companies can track staffing by gender or by other diversity measures, and that information can be shared with staffing decision makers.

In closed systems, diversity awareness will have to become a foundational element of staffing attorneys’ jobs. There also could be a reporting mechanism, or some type of ombudsperson, for lawyers who feel that they are not getting the work that they want or deserve.

RUSHTON: Where open assignment systems exist, did you collect data that speaks to perceptions regarding those and if so, are there any resulting issues that law firm and practice leaders should be made aware of?

LAURA MCGEE: We did capture relevant data which indicated that in an open assignment system, 63% of women said that strong connections to top partners were a key factor, but fewer than half of men agreed. When I talk to women lawyers they often tell me these sponsorship relationships (usually with men) are hard to develop and don’t always come naturally.

BRODHERSON: To that point, individual firms could try to unpack this through network mapping and research into mentorship and sponsorship.

Only 22% of women and 44% of men agree that partners communicate the importance of gender diversity.

As long as you have such a gap between the number of men and women in senior roles, this is going to be a challenge. The current numbers make it easier for men, and harder for women, to have a range of relationships with people who are like them.

The fact that you have almost pure parity at the associate level means that the partners should be held responsible for trying to create relationships on a level playing field, or even overinvesting in creating relationships with women.

RUSHTON: How about networking with clients? Fifty-seven percent of women, compared to 67% of men, said they have equal opportunities to network with clients compared to their peers. Is it harder for women to network effectively? What should women or firms do differently?

MCGEE: It’s important to note that external networking is often initiated through internal networking. If you’re a junior female lawyer, you’re probably not going to go out with a client on your own, at least not at first. You get invited by someone senior to you.

BRODHERSON: It also raises some questions about trying to create networking events that take place in small groups or are in environments without alcohol.

When I worked for general counsel, they would frequently have a diversity scorecard for their law firms. That kind of checklist is not a terrible start.  You can imagine asking general counsel to systematize a program where they are making sure they have female and male attorneys engaging with the younger female attorneys on the law firm side.

It’s a bit of a stretch, but we really think this is an ecosystem-wide challenge, not just a law-firm challenge.

RUSHTON:  In one question, 66% of practice leaders said women are well-represented at senior levels. Sixty percent of men but only 33% of women agreed. Yet only a quarter of senior law firm leaders are women. Why do attorneys think women are well-represented when the numbers are so poor?

BRODHERSON: This is one of the most jaw-dropping statistics in the research.

Many men are probably mistaking noise for signal. This problem gets talked about a lot relative to actions and results. You can easily see how folks mistake the chatter and symbolic acts for reality.

When it comes to diversity, our “Women in the Workplace” report clearly finds that organizations that track gender representation by level and share diversity metrics with their employees are making better progress. Senior leadership could start any diversity push with a set of sobering internal facts to make the problem much more apparent to everyone.

RUSHTON:  What about perceptions regarding more general ongoing visibility throughout the firm? Do you have any insights into that area? 

MCGEE: Other parts of the study did point to similar issues. Forty-six percent of practice leaders said partners assured a diverse set of voices were represented in decision making. Only 33% of men and 16% of women agreed.  This suggests women are not convinced by law firms’ statements of commitment to gender diversity.

BRODHERSON:  One cynical answer would be that the practice leader is able to say, we have one diverse voice, or perhaps that leader has some other minimum threshold of diversity, and then they think they’re encouraging diverse voices.

I don’t want to diminish the efforts practice leaders are making. I would call them necessary but not sufficient. And lack of communication certainly plays a role. Only 22% of women and 44% of men agree that partners communicate the importance of gender diversity.

RUSHTON: Some 80% of practice leaders, 68% of men and 48% of women agreed with the statement, “My firm is doing what it takes to improve gender diversity.” What advice do you have?

MCGEE: There’s a ton that law firms can do. When I asked one firm that performs well on diversity about what enabled their progress, they said they bake diversity into their culture. The managing partner sits in on every diversity and inclusion meeting. The firm reports and tracks diversity. That sends a signal that we have to keep this consistently top of mind.

BRODHERSON:  Firms need to find ways to make diversity a firmwide issue, not a “women’s issue” – and an issue that galvanizes the partnership and demands accountability for progress. Our “Women in the Workplace” report defines a road map to equality with six core actions. It is critical that firms understand their particular pain points and tackle them directly. Until they do, their gender diversity efforts are likely to continue to fall short.

To download the McKinsey “Women in Law Firms” report, please visit

To view our launch event video of law firm leaders discussing why their respective firms participated in the research, please visit:

To view the 2017 Annual Report of the Thomson Reuters Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law initiative which championed the study, please visit: