“Women lawyers are furious.”So began Vivia Chen’s article in The American Lawyer reporting that the National Association for Law Placement had hoped to include a breakdown of equity versus non-equity partners in its annual Directory of Legal Employers. NALP said it was forced to back down after “the majority” of its member firms refused to provide the information.
Why are women furious? Because the lack of a breakdown keeps prospective attorneys of all stripes from being able to tell how many partners are real profit-sharing partners and how many are partners in name only.
Two parties are now facing heavy criticism for this turn of events — the firms for refusing to provide the information and NALP for backing down.
Elie Mystal at Above The Law: [I]f [NALP] can’t even be trusted to accurately report statistics, then maybe we really do need to examine what value NALP is adding to the process. There has been a movement, led by various groups of women lawyers, to get NALP to acknowledge the difference between equity partner and non-equity partner when reporting diversity stats…It seems like the organisation charged with collecting partnership data from law firms should be most sensitive to this distinction.
Mystal contended that NALP backing down and intending to publish information that is “misleading,” does a disservice to those students and lawyers who depend on it for information. In other words, if you do not make the distinction between equity and non-equity, the partnership numbers just are not accurate.
We do think NALP will be best served by making sure its readers know the numbers do not include the equity/non-equity distinction and that they keep pushing to get the information. But the real issue here is the secrecy within law firms.
The American Lawyer: “How we divide profits is our business,” says Joe Sims, a senior partner at Jones Day, who insists that the firm makes no equity/non-equity distinction. “All partners make capital contributions and have voting rights,” he says, though he does acknowledge that some partners are paid a fixed amount and others are paid based on the firm’s profits.
Sims is right — law firms are not public companies and they do not have an actual obligation to disclose their information to outside sources. They should, given how often they tout their commitment to having a diverse firm, but they do not have to.
But who they should be open and honest with is associates and prospective associates. (By prospective associates in this case, we mean interviewees.) Because most law firms keep partnership breakdowns and information so secretive that associates within the firm themselves have no clue what is going on. When we mentioned to a BigLaw senior associate recently that we were hoping to have one of his partners give us a little lesson on firm politics and equity/non-equity partners, the associate, only partially joking, said he would love to know what we found out, as he also had no idea how it worked within his firm.
How can this happen? How can people get far along in their career and not know what’s happening behind the gilded partnership doors? Because you have no choice but to keep asking questions yet stick it out even when you do not get the answers.
So maybe that means that Mystal is correct and NALP needs to dig its heels in and continue to demand the information. Or, law schools themselves should do some demanding, as it’s them, not NALP, that hold the real power. Sure, schools depend on big firms to be big donors, but somewhere in those mutually dependent relationships there ought to be room for an agreement on transparency.
But, either way, it’s not going to be individual students or young associates that have the power to get the information. And if it turns out non-equity versus equity partnership numbers do indeed disproportionately impact women and minorities (something that would be far from surprising), it’ll only be the negative PR that will get the firms to change.
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