A new study by the National Association for Law Placement finds that the percentage of female partners at law firms rose in 2013, continuing a trend that spans several years. But the study's co-author is concerned, because the percentage of female associates -- who are entry-level or junior attorneys -- at law firms has started to slide.
What that means for the future of the industry isn't entirely clear.
"The short version of the long story is that women and minorities have always been underrepresented, but particularly so at the partnership level," said the study's co-author, James Leipold.
Over time, the numbers have improved and the gap has closed, even though movement was incremental, he added. "But growth was slow and steady."
The NALP study, based on analysis of data on recent law school graduates and its own directory of legal employers, found the percentage of women associates at law firms in 2013 was 44.79 percent, down from 45.66 percent in 2009.
The number of female partners increased over the same span, from 19.21 percent in 2009 to 20.22 percent in 2013.
During the recession, the percentages of women and minorities at most law firms dropped as a result of layoffs at many firms, Mr. Leipold said. While the numbers of minority lawyers began to rebound in 2009 and continue to rise year-over-year, the numbers for women did not, according to the association's data.
Pittsburgh was close to the national average in both the number of women partners, at 20.25 percent, and associates, at 43.32 percent.
"While these are small numbers, it's important to try to understand why it happened," Mr. Leipold said. "The trend marched upward for 20 years. And law firms are doing so many women's initiatives, that's why these numbers are so discouraging."
Others, including women in the legal industry, aren't as troubled by the figures as Mr. Leipold.
"I think the percentage drop is very insignificant," said Elizabeth Anne Tursi, co-founder of the Women in Law Empowerment Forum, based in New York City. "Women are making tremendous strides at law firms. Firms want to put women into their pipeline for leadership positions."
She noted the decline could be related to an overall drop in law school applications. "But in context, at large law firms, women are making tremendous strides and giving women significant opportunities to succeed."
The empowerment forum's gold standard certification program recognizes law firms "that have integrated women into the highest leadership positions," looking at specific, demonstrable steps being taken toward putting women in positions of power. The certification does not include so-called work-life balance issues, but focuses on how successful firms are at helping women advance.
Carolyn Duronio, a partner at Reed Smith, Downtown, said the decline in female associates shown in the National Association for Law Placement study did not worry her either, since it's still close to 50 percent.
"I would rather see a drop in the incoming numbers than partners," Ms. Duronio said. "Once they're in a firm, we want women to succeed. Making partner is hard to do in law firms, and the fact that number is going up is a sign that things are so much better than in the past."
She has been at Reed Smith for 29 years, starting as a summer associate. She served as the Pittsburgh office's managing partner from 2001 to 2006 and on the firm's executive committee since 2007.
Reed Smith is one of only two firms on empowerment forum's list to receive gold standard certification in all six of its categories for all three years the award has existed.
"That certification looks at women at law firms from an economic standpoint, how many women make partner, how well they are compensated," Ms. Duronio said. "Work-life balance is really important, but WILEF looks at how successful you are as a lawyer, and as a professional."
Jayme Butcher is head of the Women's Initiative Network of Reed Smith at the Pittsburgh office. She joined Reed Smith in 2000, and wasn't entirely sure such a large firm would be a good fit for her. "I was hesitant, because I am from a small town in Ohio, and a small college," Ms. Butcher said.
She said she was impressed right away by the programming the firm offers for women, including winding down when preparing to go on maternity leave and ramping back up when preparing to return to work.
Ms. Butcher added that when she made partner in 2006, she was working part time.
To her, the study isn't applicable to what's happening at law schools. "I was in charge of recruitment and our summer associates program last year, and we weren't seeing a change in the number of applicants," she said.
Ms. Tursi added that there are lessons for small and mid-sized firms as well, especially in hiring practices.
"They really have an opportunity to nurture someone, and to make sure they have women in the mix. But overall, law firms are in a much better place now than they were in the past when it comes to female representation, she said.
"I take the temperature of the legal community and I think they're in a good place as far women are concerned."
Kim Lyons: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1241