Women in M&A: How to get more women to stay in BIGLAW M&A

It’s not a pipeline problem, it’s a PR problem

8 min read

There continues to be a shortage of women M&A partners in Big Law. Although there has been some progress (pipeline.thedeal.com/login/index.dl), the gains have been minimal. A few years ago, it was reported that at the current pace, we can expect to achieve gender parity among Big Law equity partners in 2181. Even robot parity is likely to come faster.

Whilethere are countless explanations for why this gender gap persists, I think that being a female Big Law M&A partner has gotten a bad rap. I think that a significant number of women leave Big Law – and M&A in particular – for one simple, misguided reason: They don’t think that they want to become partners because they have an incomplete picture of what the job entails.

I understand because I was one of these women. I never wanted to be a Big Law partner – much less one focused on M&A. Now that I am, it’s the best job I’ve ever had because I’m a woman. If we, as an industry, can do a better job of extolling the rewards of making partner as a woman, I think more women will stay.


It’s not the pipeline.

In 2001, The New York Times ran a profile on 21 women entering Big Law as first year associates – noting that “the number of women entering law school [was] expected to exceed the number of men for the first time.” First year enrollment of women at U.S. law schools reached 49.4% that year – and has exceeded 46% ever since.

Conventional wisdom predicted that we would therefore see gender parity in Big Law partnerships within 8-10 years. Yet, here we are nearly twenty years later, in the “Year of the Women” – and where are all the women?

According to a recent survey, nearly 50% of summer associates, 46% of associates, and 40% of counsel are women. Yet, women account for only 23% of partners and 20% of equity partners. In M&A, the levels are reportedly even lower with women accounting for only 16% of senior M&A equity partners (versus 19% of senior equity partners generally). So it’s not a pipeline problem. Women are joining law firms in relatively equal numbers – and even sticking around long enough to reach senior levels – they’re just not making the jump to partner – particularly in M&A.

There are countless factors to blame for this. From implicit bias to outright discrimination to institutional, systemic, and cultural roadblocks, much has been written on the myriad reasons why the gender gap persists. 49% of women have reported receiving unwanted sexual conduct or contact (vs. 6% of men) and 81% of women have been mistaken for a lower level employee (vs. zero percent of men). While these inequities are not uncommon for women attorneys, they only tell part of the story of why women leave.


It’s a PR problem.

For nearly two decades, I’ve witnessed talented senior women leave Big Law on the brink of their promotion window only to admit, “I don’t think I want to be a partner.” I’ve watched battle-tested women opt to remain at counsel (or even super-senior associate) and avoid the partnership discussion because, they confess, “I don’t want to be a partner.”

They are not alone. According to McKinsey, “[a]cross the associate levels, women express a strong desire for promotion to the next level. But when asked specifically if they want to make partner, the desire drops sharply compared with men.” Although 78% of women associates want to be promoted (versus 74% of men), when asked if they want to make partner, this desire drops to 58% of women (versus 73% of men). These 20% of women want to succeed, they just don’t want to become partners.

The problem is that most women don’t know how good life can be as a Big Law partner. Most women have an inaccurate idea of what life is like as a Big Law partner because most Big Law partners are not women. The assumptions and expectations of what the job entails are necessarily distorted by the fact that 75-85% of the partner paradigms to which women have been exposed are represented by men.


Being a Big Law partner is great.

Like many women, I never wanted to be a partner in part because I assumed that the burdens of partnership outweighed the benefits. Unless and until the Global Head of M&A and Americas Head of M&A at White & Case convinced me that I should want to be a partner, I may have never realized I did.

Many aspects of partner life are the same for both genders and any woman who is uncertain of whether to take the next step should know that it’s worth making the leap for these reasons alone:

  1. The worst parts of the job are basically the same – and you’ve already mastered them. If you have survived long enough to become a Big Law senior female associate, then you have endured the good, the bad, and the ugly – and the fact that you have made it this far despite those obstacles means that you know your stuff and are technically proficient. You have already proven that you can be a trusted advisor so you might as well level up.
  2. The pay is much better. Average partner compensation for women partners in 2018 was reported as $627,000. This is nearly twice the average senior associate Big Law salary of $350,000 even though average partner billable hours in 2017 were only 1,691. Corporate attorneys (including M&A) are reported as having the highest average compensation. If you are already doing the work (and possibly more than the partner), you might as well get paid. Although there is still a massive gender pay gap to tackle, the fact that it’s being tracked means it’s now on our punch list.
  3. It’s not easy to balance work with family – but it’s easier as a partner. Big Law – particularly M&A – is intense and unpredictable. Whether you’re an associate or a partner, there will be all-nighters and cancelled plans. This should not be a distinctly female problem and once you make partner, you regain some control over your schedule. While I may not attend every school recital, it’s rare that I cannot make it home in time to read my kids a book and put them to bed.


Being a female Big Law partner is even better.

Being a female Big Law partner is not the same job as being a male Big Law partner. While there are additional challenges, there are also unique rewards. Once you make equity partner at a Big Law firm, you are a unicorn – a rare but inimitably powerful member of the elite 15-20% (or 3-5% if you’re a person of color) of equity partners who reached the highest echelon of private legal practice as a woman. With that comes some serious sway:

  1. You make your firm more valuable. Decades of research has demonstrated gender diverse workforces are more productive and more profitable. A recent study showed that female directors help create shareholder value because companies with more women on their boards make fewer M&A bids and pay less for acquired companies.
  2. You make yourself more valuable. Once you become a woman partner, your scarcity multiplies your options. Clients are demanding more diversity from law firms and with initiatives like the Mansfield Rule(diversitylab.com/pilot-projects/mansfield-rule-certified-firms-2018/), firms are pledging that women or minorities will make up at least 30% of candidates for leadership or governance positions.
  3. You can use your power to make your job more meaningful. Many women do not see power in itself as a goal. However, research has shown that women in power report a greater ability to achieve their personal value propositions than they could without such power – including the ability to find meaning and purpose, and to be empowered and empower others.
  4. You can challenge and change the system. Being a partner gives you greater access to decision-makers – and greater license to challenge them. By bringing new perspectives, women partners can identify blind spots and shift paradigms. Change is most likely to arise from these conversations because the friction and conflict engendered by diverse teams produces better outcomes.
  5. You can inspire the next generation of attorneys by giving them another – potentially more relatable – partnership prototype. The prior generation of women partners who forged the way are often described as superhuman and infallible. While I am awe-struck by and grateful for these women, I never aspired to be a partner because I never felt I resembled them. The most rewarding moments of my career have been when women have told me that they never considered being a Big Law partner until they met me. As a partner, you have the chance to be part of the tower of women whose shoulders boost the next generation until we reach structural, financial, and influential parity.

In 2016, women exceeded 50% of the seats at accredited U.S. law schools for the first time. 70% of my firm’s incoming summer class identify as women. My hope is that if we continue to explain to these women how rewarding the life of a Big Law M&A partner can be, we will reach parity well before the robots.


This publication is provided for your convenience and does not constitute legal advice. This publication is protected by copyright.

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