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Women with American legal careers 'still struggling to reach the top'

Posted by: Laurence Simons 10/01/13

Legal careers for women in the US have made great strides in recent years, with the introduction of more flexible working systems across the industry, a change in mindset among companies and an increasingly vocal debate over gender diversity in Biglaw all ensuring changes have been made in the sector.

However, a recent in-depth study from The American Lawyer suggests that there is still more to be done to ensure women are not kept from the top echelons of the legal world in the US.

The survey found that almost 80 per cent of the 92 Am Law 100 firms with a chief governing committee reported that two or fewer women sat on this body; while 42 per cent have a committee with just one female member.

When it came to the very peak of the firms in question - the select groups that decide on each organisation's strategic course, policies and pay policies - women were in short supply.

A female partner at an Am Law 100 firm told The American Lawyer: "Women are largely getting stuck in lower middle management. There is still a moat around the top management and that keeps the power to a small group of men."

To some extent, this is a reflection of the American corporate world as a whole, with women performing well in executive roles but struggling to break through the final barrier and move into leadership positions within major companies.

Similarly, the reasons for the discrepancy offered up by leading law firms are eerily familiar, with the majority suggesting that there are not enough female partners or rainmakers - meaning influential, high-performing executives - to fill senior positions.

While this looks to be something of a circular, tendentious argument, it is difficult to offer any clear suggestions as to how diversity at top legal firms can be improved.

One point raised by the American Lawyer report was that companies which nurtured female talent over the decades had, unsurprisingly, a better record when it came to getting women on to the top table.

Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner managing partner Barbara McCurdy said: "At many firms, management is very senior-based and top-down, and that [approach] tends to collect a lot of older white men."

She contrasted this to her current company, where the mentality of letting the "next generation" step up to leadership roles tends to create more positions for women.

However, the suggestion that not enough is being done to foster diversity is unlikely to be easily dismissed while the figures remain as unbalanced as they currently are.