August 01, 2006
The Attainment of Women Partners in U.S. Law Firms
Posted by Brayden

Shifting gears a bit, I thought I'd draw attention to a paper that appeared in the American Sociological Review last summer.  The paper, "Interorganizational Determinants of Promotion: Client Leadership and the Attainment of Women Attorneys," (coauthored by Christine Beckman and Damon Phillips) looks at the determinants of the gender composition of partners in U.S. law firms.  (An earlier version of the paper can be found here.)  The authors want to figure out why some law firms seem more likely to have women partners than other firms. 

Typical theories on job attainment focus on the supply side of the equation (e.g. human capital, individual characteristics) or on the demand side (e.g. employee biases).  Beckman and Phillips take a different approach.  They argue that one impetus for partnering women in law firms is the need to satisfy powerful clients.  Law firms that deal with clients with high-ranking women executives are much more likely to bring in women partners themselves.  The attainment of women in law firms, then, is at least partly a function of interorganizational relationships.  Using data from the National Directory of Legal Employers they construct a dataset that allows them to test and confirm this hypothesis.

Why would law firms be more likely to bring in women partners if they have clients with women in leadership positions?  One mechanism is explained by resource dependence theory, a well-established sociological theory of organizational behavior.  According to this perspective, organizations are highly influenced by other organizations upon which they are dependent for resources.  Thus, if a law firm is  dependent on clients that have women in top executive positions, they may feel pressure to bring in women partners in order to maintain that business relationship.  Another mechanism is that working with women clients familiarizes the law firm professionals with working with women in power.   A final mechanism is that the female clients with female executives may prefer to work with women lawyers, which generates business for new women lawyers in the firm, increasing their chances of promotion. 

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