Career development for women lawyers in 2019

Ark Group

In January 2019, ARK Group undertook a survey of its membership, asking its female subscribers in particular to participate in some original research on the subject of career development for women lawyers. The intention was to get a feel for the state of the industry, a snapshot in time, around the issues concerning female lawyers around the globe in 2019. We received exactly 100 responses, the majority of which were from women (93:7), which is to be expected from the demographic we invited, and the subject area.

Headline statistics show:

  • 62 percent of respondents have experienced discrepancy regarding salary differences between male and female partners;
  • 90 percent of respondents believe women have to approach their career differently to men;
  • Only 36 percent of respondents have a mentor, whilst 65 percent of respondents are mentors;
  • A surprisingly high 27 percent of respondents believe too much is made of gender differences;
  • An astounding 88 percent of respondents believed they had experienced unconscious bias during their career;
  • 63 percent agree that modern career trajectories have changed, and partnership is no longer the end goal;
  • 62 percent of respondents believe flexible working has helped them in their career;
  • 61 percent of respondents believe female-only organizations to be a good idea;
  • Only 25 percent of respondents thought certain areas of law were more suited to women; and
  • Women  predominantly  leave  the  profession  due  to  family commitments and to pursue more family-friendly careers.

The following sections detail the responses in full. All answers submitted have been anonymized, keeping only the respondent’s job title (where supplied) and country.

Have you experienced any discrepancy in your career regarding salary differences between male and female partners?

  • Yes – 61 percent
  • No – 32 percent (six of the seven male respondents answered no)
  • Unsure – 7 percent

“There is a significant discrepancy between the work and opportunities provided to male and female attorneys, a significant difference in the number of women put up for partnership. Further, I have been told my salary is capped because of my of counsel position, but there are men who have confirmed that they make more than I do in the same position and positions that are junior to me.” - Of counsel, USA

“Earlier on in my career it was assumed that some of my work was actually that of a male attorney and he was being nice to share it with me, thus he was rewarded to a greater extent.” - Partner, USA

“At times I have earned more as a woman than male counterparts. I have heard many complaints from people at other firms.” - Managing partner, Canada

Do you think women have to approach their career differently to men?

  • Yes – 90 percent
  • No – 10 percent (two of the seven male respondents said no)

“Law career progression in large law firms is not designed for women who are interested in also having a family with children. Firm hierarchies are dominated by men, and men do not look out for women when they go on and come off maternity leave, for instance. Women attorneys also have few, if any, partners and firm leaders to look up to, and not all women who are in positions of power are invested in promoting and helping the career development of other women (a phenomenon that is much more rampant among senior and junior male attorneys). There is still a lot of implicit bias (among attorneys, law firm leadership, other professionals working with attorneys, and clients) that deters and makes it difficult for women to advance (and is not something that is always or ever dealt with by law firm leadership or partners). Women have to either stay the course on par with their male counterparts and not step away at all from their progression path (and forego whatever personal or family interests they may otherwise have), or accept that they will be necessarily behind their male counterparts, or seek employment in-house or at smaller firms.” - Associate attorney, USA

“Women are still perceived as second class citizens. We have to work much harder than our male counterparts to get the plum assignments and/or recognition of our efforts.” - Partner, USA

“Women are perceived differently than men, whether rightly or wrongly, and need to be hypersensitive to their looks and language choices – much more so than men.” -Associate attorney, USA

“The perception of women in the workplace continues to influence the way a woman needs to approach her career. For example, as a woman, being too quiet means you aren’t dedicated enough to making a difference at the firm; being too assertive makes you a bitch; actively engaging in meetings means you are trying to take over the conversation; having any emotional response means that you are PMSing or just an emotional girl; mentioning that you have a child, or that you want to participate in an event that your child has makes you a mommy that should be home and can’t handle work. Men don’t get those perceptions or that feedback in my experience.” -Of counsel, USA

“Absolutely. We have to be better than our male colleagues to have a fighting chance.” - Of counsel, USA

Do you have a mentor? Is mentoring helpful?

  • Yes – 36 percent 
  • No – 64 percent

“Yes, it is helpful and often necessary to have a mentor. More importantly, it is essential to have a sponsor who has political capital and leverage in the firm and with other partners to promote you, to look out for you and help you get work with other partners, and to defend you against difficult or partners who are not supporters or biased.” - Associate attorney, USA

“A mentor can be helpful but women needs sponsors. Often times, men have mentors that serve as sponsors. This is not always the same for women.” - Senior corporate counsel, USA

“My mentor is a man. He is a strong advocate on my behalf.” - Member, USA

“I do have a mentor but she is not a lawyer, which is actually helpful.” - Partner, Ireland

“It is so helpful to have mentors – particularly of both sexes. Female mentors are good because they can empathize. Male mentors are good because they get you in the room where it happens. They get you access.” - Associate attorney, USA

“I have a very inspirational female mentor and it is really important because she gives me support, guidance and feedback.” - Head of KM department, Brazil

Are you a mentor? In what ways is mentoring helpful?

  • Yes – 65 percent 
  • No – 35 percent

“Mentoring helps to navigate new attorneys not only in their technical expertise but also to understand office politics which comes into play as much as talent.” -Attorney, USA

“Yes – mentoring helps signpost the way things work.” - Head of HR, UK

“In my mentoring position, I try to tailor my approach to the needs and ambitions of the person I am mentoring while being honest about how things are currently working in their work environment. I try to listen and offer them options to reflect upon rather than a solution or a way to go forward. I believe that it is helpful in that I listen and create a safe place.” - Partner, Canada

“I am a mentor to a younger female attorney. I believe it is helpful to her because I was in her shoes and I can understand what she is going through and can provide advice on how to work with older male attorneys and how to handle different situations.” - Attorney, USA

“It’s good to get a junior’s perspective and I hope I am making meaningful suggestions for their career development. I find it satisfying to encourage young professionals.” - Partner, British Virgin Islands

“I love mentoring. It’s personally satisfying and it helps me keep my finger on the pulse of what’s important to younger generations of lawyers.” - Of counsel, USA

Do you think that too much is made of gender differences?

  • Yes – 27 percent 
  • No – 73 percent

“Yes and no. I think there is a gender divide and that it should be breached but I think that the emphasis should not be on the divide itself or on sending a message to women that they are being positively being discriminated or that women’s presence is to be promoted because clients want diversity. The focus should be on working together so that the focus is no longer on gender but competence, expertise, hard work and talent.” - Partner, Canada

“It is important to understand but women must not think of themselves as victims.” -Executive director, USA

“Definitely not. The only people who would say that are men, or else women in older generations who made it to the top despite the male-dominated status quo and feel no obligation to help younger generations of women lawyers.” - Associate attorney, USA

“On occasion – there is a lot of historic imbalance to be corrected but sometimes we can take a sledgehammer to a nut approach. Women some- times make it hard for themselves and I say that as a woman.” - Head of HR, UK

“Yes, especially in recent years, which I think can do more damage than good.” - CMO, Canada

Which law firms do you perceive promote equality and diversity the best?

This question split the respondents significantly, with many claiming smaller firms were better able to promote equality and diversity, yet a similar number believing this was the remit for larger firms.

A few mentioned that “none do it well. All pay lip service to it”, although the opposing view was also given, that “they all do – some just do a better job at “selling it”, which doesn’t always mean they are better at doing it.”

Listed below are firms mentioned by name:

  • Allen & Overy
  • Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton
  • Cooley
  • Dentons 
  • Field LLP
  • FisherBroyles
  • Fox Rothschild
  • Freshfields
  • Gateley plc
  • Herbert Smith Freehillls
  • Lincoln, Gustafson & Cercos LLP
  • Mattos Filho
  • McCarthy Tétrault LLP
  • McLane Middleton
  • Mills & Reeve
  • Mintz
  • Mishcon de Reya
  • Morrison & Foerster LLP 
  • Munger Tolles & Olson
  • Norton Rose Fulbright
  • O’Melveny & Myers
  • Orrick
  • Perkins Coie 
  • Reed Smith
  • Ropes & Gray
  • Trowers & Hamlins
  • Walkers
  • WilmerHale

“Often midsize firms who do loads of family law (yawn! stereotype!) have way more female partners. Perhaps firms that don’t demand horrific Magic Circle/US hours are better at promoting gender equality as work– life balance for all genders is better. Most law firms are poor at LGBT+ (especially the T) diversity.” - Anon, UK

“None – name me one where it is 50-50 in the partnership and management.” - Anon, UK

Do you agree that modern career trajectories have changed, and partnership is no longer the end goal?

  • Yes – 63 percent 
  • No – 31 percent 
  • Unsure – 6 percent

“There are still many who want partnership. However, some want or expect partnership without wanting to make all of the required commitments.” - Managing partner, Canada

“Yes, they have changed – because partnership can no longer be the end goal for all. Large law firms make it clear there is no room and no intent on the part of the firm to promote all attorneys joining the firm to partnership. Attrition is necessary for success in the status quo. Also, the new buzz phrase (of the past couple generations of lawyers trying to make it up the ranks) is “business case,” which was much less so the case 20 years ago. It is intentionally nebulous and difficult to qualify, and it is used to excuse law firms from promoting attorneys to partnership. For those attorneys who seek to work in-house or in the government, there is an understanding that a short law firm career could facilitate a move to the government or business sector (as a training ground).” - Associate attorney, USA

“Yes and no. As an associate, partnership was not my end goal necessarily. I think a lot of younger attorneys now say that partnership is not their goal and they look to in-house positions or virtual law firms, contract work, or becoming staff attorneys. However, now that I am a non-equity partner, I feel like becoming an equity partner has become more of a priority. I think it changes as one moves along in their career.” - Attorney, USA

“The financial rewards are not what they once were, and the sacrifices too great – particularly for entitled millennials who expect a life/work balance.” - Managing associate, UK

Do you believe you have ever experienced unconscious bias? Do you consider this is still a hindrance to women’s career development?

  • Yes – 88 percent
  • No – 12 percent

“I think all women lawyers have. No question. And yes, it hinders your development and trajectory.” - Associate attorney, USA

“I have experienced almost daily bias for what I say, do and how I act. It is a significant hindrance.” - Of counsel, USA

“Yes! At my prior firm, I was the same year as the other associate in my practice group and I was arguably a better lawyer. But it was an old boys club. They gave the best projects to him because he went golfing and drinking with the male partners and clients.” - Of counsel, USA

“Conscious and unconscious, yes definitely. And yes it is a hindrance – the structures tend to be geared to a “male” view, at a cost to the firm, rather than towards individuals’ strengths.” - Anon, UK

“It is certainly a hindrance to a woman’s career development when decisions about work assignments, promotions, etc. are being based upon assumptions or stereotypes. It is very difficult to push back against unconscious bias because doing so requires you to be aware that it is happening in the first place, which is not always obvious.” - Partner, USA

Has flexible working helped you in your career?

  • Yes – 62 percent 
  • No – 35 percent

“No. It ended up being paid less, having less recognition but having to work the same.” - Partner, Canada

“Flexible working can be perceived very differently i.e. agile working or working from home versus changing your working patterns. I still believe there is a stigma in law firms attached to anyone whose priority may be anything other than client work, and there is still a significant focus on presentism versus outcomes focused approaches.” - Learning and development business partner, UK

“If anything, reduced hours makes it harder to maintain an upward trajectory. Firms are proud of flex time but on the ground, those in charge of the work often do not share those values.” - Associate attorney, USA

“It has helped me in trying to balance things. I made partner before I had a child. To be honest I don’t know if I would have been able to manage motherhood and the demands of achieving partnership.” - Partner, British Virgin Islands

“It’s a double-edged sword. Flexibility has allowed me to be more present in my children’s lives, but I worry that I am being penalized or judged for using the flexibility that my firm likes to promote.” - Partner, USA

Are female-friendly practices, or women-only member organizations a good idea? What about female-only prizes? 

  • Yes – 61 percent
  • No – 39 percent

“Female friendly practices are a good idea. I would not favor female only prizes.” - Partner, Ireland

“Personally I think this sucks as an idea. More separatism (albeit of a different gender) isn’t going to heal divisions and improve things – rather, it serves to reinforce separate structures and existing divisions.” - Head of HR, UK

“I think when we achieve a totally inclusive culture within our organizations this will no longer be necessary. However, whilst we still have events targeted specifically at men just without the title i.e. golf days/cricket etc. then the opposite is necessary because there are differences in the way we network and achieve results.” - Learning and development business partner, UK

“I think the jury is out. I am in principle against the idea, as it strikes me as patronizing. The real issue, as I see it, is that too many practices etc. are geared around ‘male’ rules that do not tend to apply to most women (and indeed many men).” - Anon, UK

“Often, female-only prizes may suggest that the person is really great ‘for a woman’. But on the other hand they increase the profile of extraordinary women who might not otherwise be profiled. I look forward to the time when we don’t need them.” -Partner, Canada

“These types of female-centric groups and organizations are viewed, in my opinion and experience, as women acknowledging that there is a difference and that they need a support group to handle the job, or need to be praised for making a choice between family and career to succeed in the workplace. Pointing out the fact that a leader is female only perpetuates the myth that there is some difference between male and female professionals, when what we should be doing is promoting equality.” - Of counsel, USA

“Appreciation and recognition helps women feel motivated. I think women-only groups are essential.” Attorney, USA

“Female-friendly, yes. Female-only, no.” - Attorney, USA

Would you agree that certain types of law are more suited to women? If so, which?

  • Yes – 25 percent 
  • No – 75 percent

“While every man and woman is different, and it is difficult to generalize, there are some traits that tend to be strong in a majority (again not all) of women – such as empathy and communication – which can be of value in particular areas such as family law, litigation, and employment. However I would never recommend a woman limit herself.” - CMO, Canada

“From an intellectual or ability standpoint, I would absolutely not agree with this. Women can and do practice all types of law and are just as capable as men. I think there is a perception that a certain type of law may be a better fit for women looking for flexibility, but I suspect that has more to do with the type of practice she is in (firm, government, solo) than the type of law she practices.” - Partner, USA

“Definitely not – it smacks of physics not being for girls (something I was told at school).” - Anon, UK

“Certain areas are more family-friendly and lend themselves more readily to fixed hours and/or working from home, e.g. tax, employment, pensions, regulatory. Corporate and banking are not family-friendly.” - Professional support lawyer, UK

Why do women leave the legal profession?

  • Family commitments – 33 percent 
  • Culture – 14 percent
  • Gender bias – 7 percent
  • To pursue more family-friendly careers – 22 percent 
  • All of the above – 24 percent

“All of these. Because of gender bias and limitations in our role the legal career doesn’t work well for women.” Partner, USA

“Long hours at a law firm are tough on anyone, women and men. Men and women with children increasingly look for alternative career paths more well-suited to their family as a priority.” - Associate, USA

“Oftentimes it is a culture of gender or race bias that leads women to leave. Also, if there is a culture of gender bias then women may be penalized more for family commitments than men.” - Senior corporate counsel, USA

“Women mostly leave because the juggle between children, work and expectations is too difficult. Moreover, it is very difficult to justify that juggle when you are constantly underpaid in comparison to your male comparators and promoted much more slowly. Men dress that up because we work ‘part-time’. Whilst we get paid for part-time working the hours we usually put in are equivalent to full-time, just invisible, and therefore we are hindered and promotion delayed for many years later than our male comparators because of bias... why would we keep struggling against that?” - Senior solicitor, UK

These survey results are make up chapter 1 of Ark Group's new book Career Development for Women Lawyers, available now at

Career Development for Women Lawyers is a primer – for women, by women – to help female lawyers progress their careers in an industry still struggling with gender equality.

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Ark Group

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JD Supra Cookies. We place our own cookies on your computer to track certain information about you while you are using our Website and Services. For example, we place a session cookie on your computer each time you visit our Website. We use these cookies to allow you to log-in to your subscriber account. In addition, through these cookies we are able to collect information about how you use the Website, including what browser you may be using, your IP address, and the URL address you came from upon visiting our Website and the URL you next visit (even if those URLs are not on our Website). We also utilize email web beacons to monitor whether our emails are being delivered and read. We also use these tools to help deliver reader analytics to our authors to give them insight into their readership and help them to improve their content, so that it is most useful for our users.

Analytics/Performance Cookies. JD Supra also uses the following analytic tools to help us analyze the performance of our Website and Services as well as how visitors use our Website and Services:

  • HubSpot - For more information about HubSpot cookies, please visit
  • New Relic - For more information on New Relic cookies, please visit
  • Google Analytics - For more information on Google Analytics cookies, visit To opt-out of being tracked by Google Analytics across all websites visit This will allow you to download and install a Google Analytics cookie-free web browser.

Facebook, Twitter and other Social Network Cookies. Our content pages allow you to share content appearing on our Website and Services to your social media accounts through the "Like," "Tweet," or similar buttons displayed on such pages. To accomplish this Service, we embed code that such third party social networks provide and that we do not control. These buttons know that you are logged in to your social network account and therefore such social networks could also know that you are viewing the JD Supra Website.

Controlling and Deleting Cookies

If you would like to change how a browser uses cookies, including blocking or deleting cookies from the JD Supra Website and Services you can do so by changing the settings in your web browser. To control cookies, most browsers allow you to either accept or reject all cookies, only accept certain types of cookies, or prompt you every time a site wishes to save a cookie. It's also easy to delete cookies that are already saved on your device by a browser.

The processes for controlling and deleting cookies vary depending on which browser you use. To find out how to do so with a particular browser, you can use your browser's "Help" function or alternatively, you can visit which explains, step-by-step, how to control and delete cookies in most browsers.

Updates to This Policy

We may update this cookie policy and our Privacy Policy from time-to-time, particularly as technology changes. You can always check this page for the latest version. We may also notify you of changes to our privacy policy by email.

Contacting JD Supra

If you have any questions about how we use cookies and other tracking technologies, please contact us at:

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