There’s been some good news in the women-in-law category over the last few years. For years, women hovered in the range of 15%-18% of partners in most law firms. Both Debevoise and Cravath have been leaders in changing that–with women comprising a solid 50% average of both firms’ new partners over a five-year period.  The 2011 NAFE/Flex-Time Lawyers Best Law Firms for Women survey recognized the following six firms for having 25% or more female equity partners:

different study by the National Law Journal did not include some of the firms above but found additional firms whose women equity partner ranks  exceeded 24%:

  • Fragomen at 42%
  • Jackson Kelly at 28%
  • Ice Miller at 27%
  • Best Best and Krieger at 27%
  • Ford & Harrison at 26%
  • Holland & Hart at 25%

Among the highest grossing firms, Skadden was one that in the last couple of years had women comprising fully 20% of all equity partners. The firm’s hiring of Chicago lawyer Sheli Rosenberg, a powerhouse legal figure, to mentor its women didn’t hurt. Her mission, she said, was to “help women have successful careers and achieve balance in and out of the office.” On the other side of the pond, at Allen & Overy, 40% of their new partners were women a couple of years ago, giving Slaughter & May, who has been the UK leader in women partners, a run for their money.

Back in the States, part of Debevoise’s secret to greater female participation may be that it has long had a part-time partnership policy, formalized almost 30 years ago, that allows any associate, without making a case to the firm, to work part-time and not lose or delay their eligibility for partnership. And the same may be said for Allen & Overy, which has a part-time policy for lawyers, including one for equity partners that allows partners to work a four-day week, or full-time but with the addition of 52 days of vacation every year on top of the usual 30 days. In 2010 Sidley had 24% of its women on reduced hours who stayed on partnership track, and a number of equity partners worked on reduced-hours schedules. Another leader in part time flexibility is Fredrickson & Byron, where flex lawyers remain on partnership track at the same rate as peers.

But these flex-time policies don’t work everywhere, unfortunately. The 2012 Annual Yale Law Women Study, which recognizes the top 10 family friendly law firms in the Vault Top 100 Law Firms, found that only 5% of partners who were promoted in 2012 were then working part-time and only 7% had ever worked part-time.

Powerful women-only professional networks have begun to enjoy the same success that the men’s networks have. In 2007, the Women in Law Empowerment Forum (WILEF) was founded to educate and provide networking opportunities for women in law firms. In 2014, they are recognizing through a tiered certification program almost 50 firms (at this date) that meet various milestones with respect to women.  Although Devevoise and Cravath aren’t on the list yet, Skadden and many others have seen their emphasis on female hiring and promotion recognized.

Added to these professional networks are also educational programs for women lawyers who have been out of the workplace and the recent introduction of a re-entry program. “The OnRamp Fellowship, created in December 2013, aims to address the ‘leaky pipeline’ issue in law firms by replenishing the number of mid to senior level women lawyers” by matching experienced women lawyers returning to the profession with law firms for a one-year, paid position. “Four major law firms – Sidley, Cooley, Baker Botts, and Hogan Lovells – signed on as the founding sponsors of the Fellowship… [T]he four law firms hired nine Fellows who are working in six practice areas across six office locations through Summer 2015. More than 10 additional AmLaw 200 firms have signed on for the second round of the pilot program.”

Of course, these developments don’t fully reverse the age-old challenges that women lawyers face. One of the firms listed in the WILEF, Reed Smith, which meets all six criteria for gold certification status, settled a sex discrimination and harassment law suit by one of its female partners in 2011.  She had contended that not only were male partners paid more at the firm than their female counterparts, but female attorneys were given work based on their willingness to “engage in sexual relations with members of [Reed Smith’s] management,” according to reports at the time by The Intelligencer.

Then there’s the claim that continues to pop up that it is women themselves who are keeping other women down. PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi has been quoted as saying, “The glass ceiling will go away when women help other women break through that ceiling.” One researcher posits that women in the workplace  may feel their scarcity puts them into direct competition with other women for the few “women” spots, and/or that women who are not high performers degrade respect for all women, in each case producing a spiraling circle of woman-on-woman criticism. On the other hand, a third concern may be that women fear being accused of playing favorites to other women just because of their gender.

“There’s a place in hell for women who don’t support other women,” according to Sheli Rosenberg, Skadden’s mentor for women.

What some firms still seem to be losing sight of is the bottom-line importance of diversity: “Organizations with more women leaders produce better financial results,” as a Korn Ferry book “Women in Leadership” found.  Yet despite their value, as consultant Victoria Ruttenberg has pointed out, women are still held to standards beyond what men are held to.  She notes the authors’ finding that a senior female leader is expected to be strong in 22 or approximately 33% of the potential 67 leadership skills, while only three of those 67 leadership skills are rated as “important” for male executives. In other words, a senior male leader has to be strong in only approximately 4% of the potential 67 leadership skills, compared to a woman who has to show strength in 33% of those skills. “The same surveys showed that female executives are rising to this inequitable challenge and are outperforming male executives in 17 of those 67 leadership skills,” while males outperform women in only 4 skills, as Ruttenberg notes.

Given these odds, then, is it any wonder, as a 2014 McKinsey report on eBay’s diversity in leadership initiative found, that “women were significantly less likely than men to believe that their opinions were listened to and more likely to doubt that the most deserving people received promotions”?