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Who Wins the Tournament of Lawyers? Gender and Promotions to Partner in a Large Law Firm


Despite tremendous gains in law school enrollment and entry to large firms over the past several decades, women remain stubbornly under-represented at the most senior ranks of law firms. In the United States, for example, women comprise nearly half of new law firm associates but only one quarter of equity partners nationally. While gender gaps in partnership are well-documented, the processes underlying these disparities are less clear. Explanations for the continuing under-representation of women in law firm partnerships tend to fall into three main categories: gendered aspects of preparation (e.g., pre-firm experiences), preferences (employee, employer, and client), and firm policies and practices. Missing in this literature is an in-depth investigation of how women are evaluated and sorted within law firms. Part of this omission may be due to data limitations; the most commonly used data sources for analyzing the U.S. legal profession (e.g., NALP, JD and Beyond, Martindale-Hubbell) lack firm-level performance data. In this study, we analyze 10+ years of personnel data from a large law firm to investigate gender differences in promotion to partnership. We find that women remain significantly less likely to be promoted to partner than men, when controlling for within-firm performance, personal characteristics, parental leaves, and pre-firm preparation. Moreover, contrary to popular accounts of female associates “opting out” of law firms to seek more family-friendly workplaces or better work-life balance, when women leave the firm they are significantly more likely than men to do so because they are "counseled out" or terminated by firms. We discuss our findings in relation to existing research on gender and the law to show that gender inequalities in firm partnership are not reducible to gender-based differences in preparation, preferences, or performance and are shaped by discriminatory actions by employers.


Working Paper


Jayanti Owens, Lauren Rivera

Date Published



Owens, Jayanti, and Lauren Rivera. 2024. Who Wins the Tournament of Lawyers? Gender and Promotions to Partner in a Large Law Firm.


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