How to Increase Gender Diversity in Law Firms and Legal Departments

Topics: Diversity, Law Firms, Talent Development, Women’s Leadership Blog Posts


In January, a U.S. Magistrate Judge sanctioned an attorney for telling opposing counsel it wasn’t “becoming of a woman” to raise her voice during a contentious deposition. In imposing the sanction, the judge wrote, “A sexist remark is not just a professional discourtesy, although that in itself is regrettable and all too common. The bigger issue is that comments like [this attorney’s] reflect and reinforce the male-dominated attitude of our profession.”

Indeed, as a 2015 report by the American Bar Foundation and the ABA’s Commission on Women in the Profession found, “inappropriate or stereotypical comments” toward women attorneys are among the most overt indications of the discrimination, both stated and implicit, that contributes to women’s under-representation in the legal profession.

Virtually every large law firm and publicly held corporation claims it is committed to gender diversity. Yet most gender diversity programs have accomplished very little in the way of significant change. Progress toward real gender diversity depends on an organization taking three actions: i) specifying specific numerical goals; ii) providing meaningful financial incentives to achieve them; and iii) adopting and enforcing a clear strategy for how that is to be done. Each organization’s goals will be different, but all strategies should have certain common elements.


Written employment applications and resumés should be stripped of all gender identification. No female applicant who is interviewed should be rejected without having met with a woman. No woman applicant should be asked questions about her marital status, family plans, child care arrangements, or how long she plans to work. Hiring statistics should be reviewed annually and if the organization’s goals are not being met, figure out what needs to be changed.


The ABA found that 60% of white women but only 4% of white men felt excluded from formal and informal networking opportunities. To make sure that no one in your organization feels excluded, take an anonymous annual survey about their job satisfaction, sense of inclusion and expectations for the coming year. Pair senior attorneys with junior ones and create incentives for them to have periodic lunches, formal mentoring sessions, and assignment and quality-of-work reviews. Mix the genders of these pairings. Form and support a gender diversity committee charged with assuring that the organization’s culture encourages and appreciates diversity. Interview every attorney leaving the organization, preferably by someone of the same sex. If you are losing women disproportionately to men, do something about it.

Professional Development

Establish objective benchmarks that attorneys’ must meet at every career level: type and complexity of assignments received, quality of work performed, and opportunities for client contact and project supervision. Annually verify that women and men are exposed to comparable experiences, challenges and feedback. Assure all project teams, client visits, negotiating situations, first-chair litigation assignments and committees are appropriately gender-balanced.

Promotion and Compensation

Take subjective judgments out of the process: design evaluation forms that require objective input; adopt objective standards for compensation; and force promotion decisions to be accompanied by objective justifications. Include a critical mass of women on management and compensation committees. Require a written justification of any significant variation in the compensation or status of attorneys with objectively comparable performance statistics.

General Policies

Provide training for all attorneys about implicit biases and how they operate to disadvantage women. Hold periodic women’s leadership programs. Recruit and promote women who can serve as role models for the firm’s junior women. Come down hard and fast on sexual harassment — a no-tolerance policy is essential for a successful diversity initiative.

Women can do a great deal on their own to avoid or overcome the gender biases that slow or obstruct their career progress. However, law firms and legal departments need to be far more proactive than they have been in establishing policies and practices that substantially reduce the harmful effects of those biases.

We have not mentioned all of the steps legal organization should take to achieve real gender diversity, but implementation of those we have identified would move an organization a long way along the road to a gender-neutral working environment.

The authors’ upcoming book, Breaking Through Bias: Communication Techniques for Women to Succeed at Work (scheduled to be published in mid-May) is largely devoted to providing women with advice about how they can avoid or overcome the gender biases that slow or obstruct their careers. You can also go to their website,, and sign up to receive future blog posts on gender, career advancement and stereotype bias.