New NAWL Survey: Few Women Rise to Leadership Roles at Large Firms

March 14, 2014

Only 17 percent of equity partners at the nation’s 200 largest law firms are women, according to the eighth annual Survey on Retention and Promotion of Women in Law Firms released in February. 

The survey, conducted by the National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL) and The NAWL Foundation, shows that “not much has changed in its findings of compensation, leadership roles, rainmaking, and equity partnership” for women working at these firms. The report also reveals that the greatest percentage of women (64 percent) occupy the lowest positions (staff attorneys) at firms.

In its 2012 survey, NAWL reported that 15 percent of equity partners and 70 percent of staff attorneys were women. 

“This year’s results reinforce that women in private practice continue to face barriers to reaching the highest positions in their firms—as equity partners and members of governance committees,” said Stephanie Scharf, one of the authors of the report who is past president of The NAWL Foundation and partner at Scharf Banks Marmor LLC.

“It is troubling that women make up the large majority of staff attorneys,” those in the “lowest echelon of law firms,” yet they account for only 17 percent of equity partners in Big Law—a “static minority,” Scharf added.

Among the survey’s highlights: There continues to be a disproportionately low number of women who advance to the highest ranks at large firms despite the fact that since the 1980s more than 40 percent of law school graduates have been women. Also, approximately 66 percent of all new male equity partners are recruited laterally, compared with about one-half of new female equity partners. And a large majority of firms will not report data about compensation of their men and women lawyers. According to NAWL, 33 firms refused to participate in the survey although they previously did so as recently as last year. 

“The survey has become the gold standard of surveys on retention and promotion of women in the legal profession. The survey captures the progress, or lack thereof, of women lawyers forging long-term careers and attaining leadership roles in large law firms, including the obstacles they face along the way. In addition, it provides important benchmarking statistics for firms to use in measuring their own progress,” said NAWL President Deborah S. Froling, a partner at Arent Fox LLP.

To view the full report, visit or