A new Beasley study examines pay and performance rates for female partners in the nation’s largest firms.
Stephanie Wahba, a second-year law student at the Beasley School of Law, said women will always struggle to balance their families and their careers – especially in the field of law.
“I think a big problem is support within the [typical law] firm,” Wahba said. “It’s still an ‘old boys’ club.’”
But a new study from Beasley and the University of Texas Pan-American is prepared to debunk myths that blame lower salaries for women in the legal field on female care-taking duties and assumed lower performance rates.
The study analyzed the 130 consistently largest firms in the country, according to the AmLaw 200, during a seven-year period and found, almost across the board, that women were more productive than men.
Firms with the highest number of female lawyers earned, on average, $20 million more than firms with the lowest percentage of female lawyers. The study also found that female partners were on an equal playing field as men when it came to producing revenue for their firm.
But despite the new statistics, women are still under-compensated compared to their male counterparts.
Marina Angel, the head director of research for the study and a professor at Beasley, said she was not surprised by the results of her team’s work.
“I wasn’t surprised by the end result – it was something I think we all knew,” Angel said. “I was surprised we were able to document it.”
Angel said since the release of the study earlier this month, it has garnered widespread, national attention, even appearing on the Wall Street Journal’s website, among other prominent publications.
Angel said she remains hopeful that the story will continue to generate interest and bring light to the issue at hand.
“I think [the study] is going to help tremendously,” Angel said. “It’s a very promising find to me that not only are women at the large firms asking for the link to this study, but the diversity officers of the firm are asking for this study as well.”
Angel said the research seems to suggest that the infamous “glass-ceiling effect” is still in play, regardless of reports that suggest women, in addition to other minorities, are now viewed as equals.
“They’ve been hemorrhaging all types of people,” Angel said.
Details of the study showed that women, who now make up a growing percentage of the legal field, are more likely to be stuck in the position of an associate, rather than work their way up the ranks to an equity or non-equity partner position.
As of 2007, 15.7 percent of equity partners were described as female.
Researchers involved with the study theorize that this may be due to the seniority-based “lockstep” promotion and compensation system, which has traditionally been used in law firms. Opponents of such a system might find it unreasonable for women who choose to carry a child and may take temporary leave.
“Women will drop out of the workforce to have children, and that will always be true, because men cannot have children,” Wahba said.
The proposed solution to this is said to be a merit-based system to replace the outdated methods currently in practice, but even with Angel’s own advocacy of merit-based compensation, she said even that could produce its own set of problems.
“There is a transition [to merit-based compensation], but there’s a problem when you think you’re going to a merit-based system. You have to define ‘merit,’” Angel said.
Beasley students said that they remain hopeful that their generation will not endure the same challenges as their predecessors and will be able to transcend the more practical problems that face women who pursue legal careers today. Still, they acknowledged the rigid landscape that still exists for female lawyers.
“I think it takes time,” Elizabeth Oquendo, a junior law student, said. “When you look at when the gender equality movement happened, and when women moved into the work force, it wasn’t that long ago.”
Brandon Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.