Recent reports of the persistent pay gap between men and women law firm partners have prompted debates about the role of origination credits in that inequity. Thoughtful scholars, law firm leaders and partners, and consultants to the industry are typically careful not to point fingers or suggest that the bias is intentional. But the statistics can’t help but make a number of people uncomfortable or defensive. Until now, we have relied mostly on interviews, self-reported surveys, and anecdotal evidence about the root causes of the inequitable distribution of origination credits in so many firms. Those who are invested in the status quo point to the potential subjectivity in such data sources as a way to discredit the findings. Even those who are keen to change the system are often at a loss about how to affect change.
My empirical research gives some new insights into the foundation of this problem and some possible ways forward. I have collected extensive data —timesheets, billing records, origination files, personnel records –across multiple law firms (domestic and global), for timespans ranging up to a decade per firm. This archival data has the benefit of being objective, in the sense that lawyers recorded it for business purposes rather than as an exercise to understand gender outcomes. But the investigation about partner-level collaboration consistently highlighted issues related to gender, too. In my analyses across the disparate law firms, several similar findings have emerged that point to some more general patterns across the sector.
First, and perhaps most surprising, is the way that the origination gap emerges between male versus female partners. Most people – initially, including me – assumed that both men and women start their partner years with an equally small book of business, but that a discrepancy grows incrementally, over time. The reality, at least in four different law firms looks quite different: while it’s true that partners of both genders begin with negligible origination credits, by the end of the third or fourth post-election year a sizable difference has opened up. The figure below illustrates this pattern. (Note that the figures look very promising for highly experienced women but we need to interpret the data with caution: there are so few long-tenured women partners that the survivors really skew the average.)
[click this link to see the figure: gardner_gender-origination_bol_2016-11-02 ]
What accounts for this rapid divergence between men and women’s book of business? Our statistical analyses show that women tend to grow their book incrementally and often through the (obviously harder) process of developing clients who are brand new to the firm, whereas men tend to “inherit” institutional clients –either as the sole or co-lead partner on major accounts. The speed of that process suggests that its roots lie in a biased origination system beginning in their associate years.
One of the benefits of statistical analysis is that we can rule out, or control for, many factors that would otherwise explain the disparity. For example, one lawyer quoted in an online article suggested that women may accumulate fewer origination credits because of their desire to “get home” and work fewer hours. But our findings show that gender itself is a strong predictor of the origination credit gap, even when controlling for hours worked, the partner’s hourly rate, the average billing rate of her/his team, and the number of clients where each is the lead partner.
[this post is an abridged version of one that appeared yesterday on Bloomberg’s Big Law Business; for the full text, please click here: https://bol.bna.com/harvard-study-on-gender-and-origination-in-the-legal-profession/]
Many of you have asked over the last year or so about the relationship between collaboration and gender. My first priority in studying collaboration was to establish the “business case” for it, and to build a strong empirical basis for claiming that smart collaboration is an imperative for professional service firms (and knowledge-based organizations more broadly). I think we are well on our way toward meeting that goal, so now I’m beginning to tackle the gender-related aspects.
I hope you’ll join the dialogue and contribute toward this initiative. If your firm has data that you think sheds light on the topic, let me know. Have you piloted different initiatives related to origination credits or other aspects of client service that affect professionals’ ability / willingness to engage in collaborative behaviors, or affect their outcomes when they do? If you don’t have the data, do you have an opinion? Share it, please. Tackling this topic requires the inputs of many different experts, each with their own perspectives and experience. In short, we need smart collaboration.