Q&A: Why Law’s Gender Gap Is Worse at Law Firms Than In-House

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By Andrea Vittorio

The legal profession’s gender gap is worse for women at law firms than for those working as in-house lawyers at the biggest companies in the U.S.

Women lead about 25 percent of Fortune 500 companies’ legal departments, according to an annual survey by the Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA). Another MCCA study on law firm diversity shows women are only about 20 percent of equity partners in 2017, meaning at least half their pay comes as a share of the firm’s profits.

Malini Moorthy, vice president and associate general counsel at Bayer Corp., says that in her experience, corporations are further along than law firms when it comes to developing diverse talent. Bayer was recently named to an annual Best-of-the-Best list of corporations in the U.S. committed to diversity and inclusion.

Bloomberg Law’s Andrea Vittorio spoke with Moorthy April 17 at a Women in the Courtroom event hosted by the law firm Reed Smith LLP. Comments have been lightly edited.

Why do you think there’s a gap between women in law firms and in-house?I left a law firm when I was a senior associate. I felt ready to lead, ready to be really driving strategy, ready to manage. Those were things that I felt I could do at a much earlier stage, quite frankly, in-house. The opportunity presented itself, and I learned that my guess was right in terms of being able to realize those goals very quickly and at an earlier stage in my career than had I stayed in a law firm.

Is there something that law firms can do to give women more opportunities?Absolutely. I think, first of all, we have to be honest that being a partner in a law firm is very different from being an associate in a law firm. They obviously overlap, but the skill set is slightly different in terms of the expectations for a partner. I think law firms do a poor job communicating what their expectations are of partnership. Partnership is largely opaque. You could be much more transparent about what your expectations are, what it takes, and be much more objective in terms of that criteria and how that criteria is applied.

How is the corporate environment different?I think corporations have done a much better job in several areas. One is corporations have recognized that diversity is critical to success. Bottom line, I think corporations as part of that recognize the importance of leveraging talent, which is inherently diverse, and the importance of reflecting our society. Are they perfect? No, but I think they’re further ahead on that trajectory than law firms.

I also think corporations do a better job at identifying talent and developing talent, with very clear objectives about what that is. What does that mean to develop talent? It means giving them opportunities to lead. It means exposing them to senior management. It means stretching them in terms of their assignments. It means giving them training both internally within the company and through external training programs. So I think corporations understand that and do that in a much more systematic way.

And, in terms of development, engaging with the employee and understanding that it’s both parties doing it. Employees have a responsibility for their own development, but managers also have a responsibility for developing that talent. I think law firms have been very slow to realize that. They speak the words ‘talent development.’ I’m not sure they understand what that means and what commitment it takes to actually develop talent.

To contact the reporter on this story: Andrea Vittorio in Washington at avittorio@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Fawn Johnson at fjohnson@bloomberglaw.com

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