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Numbers Don't Lie

Stephanie Scharf asks tough questions about gender and race in law, then finds answers

Published in 2022 Illinois Super Lawyers magazine

Driven by her passion for data, Stephanie Scharf started conducting research on women in law in 2006. She sought answers to a big question: Why were women leaving large law firms? 

“I used to ask some of the senior men, ‘Why is so-and-so leaving?’ and the response was typically, ‘She wants to stay home with her kids,’” says Scharf, founder of the consulting firm The Red Bee Group and partner at Scharf Banks Marmor. “When you would ask the women why they were leaving, they would say, ‘I can’t take this anymore,’ and they would go onto another job. I felt having data would really shine a light on what was happening.”

That’s why she launched the National Association of Women Lawyers Annual Survey on the Retention and Promotion of Women in Law Firms, the first national survey that broke out women at all levels of law.

“The reality today in big law,” says Scharf, who has now conducted 15 national surveys on the profession, “is that women enter at roughly a 50-50 rate, but by the time you get to nonequity partner level, they’re down to about 30 percent of partners and by the time you get to equity partners, they’re down to about 20 percent.” These numbers haven’t changed much since 2006, Scharf says, and that’s over a 15-year period in which people have become very aware that women are not advancing at the same rate as men. 

It’s not just big law, either. “I did a study a few years ago about where people end up 25 years after graduation from law school, and it turns out 40 percent of women have left the legal profession,” Scharf says. “They do not leave it to go home. They leave it largely for other jobs. To me, that’s a deep concern.”

In 2019, she and her research partner, Roberta “Bobbi” Liebenberg, authored “Walking Out the Door: The Facts, Figures, and Future of Experienced Women Lawyers in Private Practice,” a survey of attorneys at the nation’s 500 largest firms. One of their findings came when they asked managing partners about how well their firms were doing at advancing women. 

“Most thought their firms were doing extremely well. Most senior men thought that, too. But when you talk to senior women, they don’t share the same view,” Scharf says. “What you see and what you hear is often a function of the position you’re in and a function of gender, race and ethnicity. That study showed us that not everybody has the same perspective, which led us to one of the principles we use in doing research: You really have to get multiple perspectives to understand the reality of what is going on.” 

Multiple perspectives are more important than ever. “Thirty years ago, there was probably a low single-digit number of people of color in law schools. There were a lot of women in law schools, but the profession itself beyond the entry level did not reflect those numbers,” Scharf says. “Today, there are women and people of color at basically all levels, but they’re not at all levels in the proportion to which they exist in the profession. The profession still has stunted growth of women and lawyers of color at the top levels.”

Not only is this a problem of diversity, equity and inclusion, Scharf says, it’s also bad for business. “Fifty percent of people who graduate from law school are women, and that’s been the case for years. What is lesser known is that 31 percent of law students are people of color. If employers do not hire and promote women and lawyers of color at the same rates as white men, that employer is going to have less access to the talent pool that exists and the level of talent that clients are demanding.” 

For Scharf, it’s research and data that drives these business imperatives and helps employers implement better policies and practices. “Anecdotes open up your eyes and leave an impression, but when you’re talking to groups of people who are leaders in organizations, data is far more persuasive to them. It’s hard to run away from.”

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