Despite Small Gains in the Representation of Women and Minorities Among Equity Partners, Broad Disparities Remain

NALP Bulletin, June 2015

Equity partners in multi-tier law firms continue to be disproportionately white men. New figures from NALP show that in 2014, only 17.1% of equity partners were women and only 5.6% were racial/ethnic minorities.

The new NALP findings on women equity partners mirror the most recent findings by the National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL), which reported in February 2014 that "the 200 largest US law firms report only 17% of equity partners are women."

NALP has been compiling its information since 2011, when NALP began asking law firms to report demographic information for equity and non-equity partners through the NALP Directory of Legal Employers. As has been the case since 2011, there is a definite skew among women lawyers and minority lawyers who are partners toward non-equity status. Partners in general continue to be disproportionately both male and white (about three-quarters white and male in 2014), and in multi-tiered firms the skew among equity partners appears to be even greater.

Although this equity/non-equity partnership data remains relatively new compared to over two decades of information on the demographics of partners and associates at law firms, this information is now in its fourth year and provides an increasingly stable data set from which to be able to say something meaningful about the ranks of equity and non-equity partners as to race and gender. Although many firms with multi-tier partnerships did not provide equity/non-equity partner demographics in 2014, many did, accounting for almost 22,500 partners, or about 66% of the partners in the NALP Directory with multi-tier partnerships. Tables 1-3 provide several perspectives on the findings for 2014 with comparative figures for the prior three years.

  • Overall, based on those offices that provided information, 63.5% of male partners were equity partners as of February 2014, while somewhat less than half, about 48%, of both women partners and minority partners were equity partners, a differential of about 15 percentage points. See Table 1.

  • More dramatically perhaps, among equity partners, 82.9% were men, 17.1% were women, and 5.6% were racial/ethnic minorities. (The minority figures include both men and women, so the three figures add to more than 100%.) Among non-equity partners, the respective figures were 71.8% men, 28.2% women, and 8.9% racial/ethnic minorities. See Table 2.

  • Finally, among all partners, the equity/non-equity split remains at about 60%/40%. Slightly more than half of partners were male equity partners; just over 10% were women equity partners; and just over 3% were minority equity partners (Again, minorities are also included in the counts by gender.) See Table 3.

In the fourth year of collecting this kind of information, firms have become more familiar with reporting of this information, making year to year comparison more meaningful. Nonetheless conclusions should continue to be made with caution, and small changes should not be given undue emphasis or necessarily construed as a trend. Given how closely some firms hold the information about equity and non-equity demographics, we were pleased to receive the information for about two-thirds of all partners in multi-tier firms listed in the 2014 NALP Directory, compared with about 50% in 2011.

To the extent that possible trends in the data can be identified based on a four-year period, it does seem to be the case that the distribution of all partners by equity status is moving, albeit in the smallest increments, toward a greater representation by women and minorities, just as women and minorities have made small gains in representation among partners as a whole. For instance, between 2011 and 2014, the percent of all partners who were male equity partners fell from 61.3% to 60.1%, while the percent of all partners who were women equity partners rose from 9.5% to 10.3%, and the percent of all partners who were minority equity partners rose from 2.9% to 3.3%. See Table 3. Similarly, the percent of equity partners who were men in 2011 was 84.4%, and fell to 82.9% in 2014. During the same period, the percent of equity partners who were women rose from 15.6% to 17.1%, and the percent of equity partners who were minority rose from 4.7% to 5.6%. See Table 2.

It should be noted that this data has been collected during a period in which the balance between equity and non-equity partners at multi-tier firms has been changing. Over the four years that NALP has been collecting this data, the percent of all partners in two-tier partnerships who were equity partners fell from 61.3% to just over 60% in the two most recent years, and the percent who were non-equity partners rose from 38.7% to 39.9%. So the finding that the percentage of partners who are female or minority equity partners increased a bit even as the percentage of partners who are equity partners stabilized in 2013 and 2014 may be a positive sign.

To determine whether an individual law firm or law office is a multi-tier firm and to determine whether multi-tier demographic data was submitted for a specific firm, you can review the directory information the firm submitted at www.nalpdirectory.com.


Table 1. Percent of Partners Reported as Equity Partners by Gender or Minority Status

  2011 2012 2013 2014
Men partners 16,134 18,278 18,083 17,641
   % equity 64.9% 64.2% 63.6% 63.5%
Women partners 4,104 4,578 4,778 4,835
   % equity 47.0% 46.4% 47.4% 47.7%
Minority partners 1,229 1,423 1,562 1,549
   % equity 47.1% 46.8% 47.2% 48.5%


Table 2. Distribution of Equity and Non-equity Partners by Gender or Minority Status

  2011 2012 2013 2014
Equity partners 12,396 13,864 13,760 13,508
   % men 84.4% 84.7% 83.5% 82.9%
   % women 15.6% 15.3% 16.5% 17.1%
   % minority 4.7% 4.8% 5.4% 5.6%
Non-equity partners 7,842 8,992 9,101 8,968
   % men 72.3% 72.7% 72.4% 71.8%
   % women 27.7% 27.3% 27.6% 28.2%
   % minority 8.3% 8.4% 9.1% 8.9%


Table 3. Distribution of All Partners by Equity Status and Gender or Minority Status

  2011 2012 2013 2014
Total partners 20,238 22,856 22,861 22,476
   % equity 61.3% 60.7% 60.2% 60.1%
   % men equity 51.7% 51.4% 50.3% 49.8%
   % women equity 9.5% 9.3% 9.9% 10.3%
   % minority equity 2.9% 2.9% 3.2% 3.3%
   % non-equity 38.7% 39.3% 39.8% 39.9%
   % men non-equity 28.0% 28.6% 28.8% 28.7%
   % women non-equity 10.7% 10.7% 11.0% 11.2%
   % minority non-equity 3.2% 3.3% 3.6% 3.5%

Note: Figures are based on 262 offices/firms that have a tiered partnership and also reported information on equity and non-equity partner counts. A number of firms that otherwise reported information on an office-by-office basis reported their partnership information on a firm-wide basis. Minorities are also counted as men or women, hence percentages add to more than the total.

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