Aug 10, 2021 - Economy

The dearth of women among senior M&A lawyers

Number of M&A deals with <span style="color: #00ab58;">men</span> or <span style="color: #835bff;">women</span> serving as lead counsel
Data: Afra Afsharipour, Women and M&A; Chart: Will Chase/Axios

Consider the most prestigious role on the most prestigious deals at the most prestigious companies in the most prestigious profession. In other words: The job of lead counsel on big-ticket M&A transactions. That position is still overwhelmingly held by men, 30 years after women became roughly half of all law students.

Why it matters: The asymmetry is hardly confined to the legal profession. CEOs, boards of directors, M&A investment bankers — all are dominated by men. But a new study has now released quantitative data on just how male the senior lawyers involved are.

What they found: UC Davis law professor Afra Afsharipour examined the 100 biggest deals where U.S. companies were acquired for each year from 2014 to 2020. Overall, women served as lead partners on just 10.5% of those deals. That's about half the rate at which women make partner at law firms.

What they're saying: "These are all large 'bet the company' type transactions that are predominantly led by lawyers who have the most significant clout and power in a large law firm," writes Afsharipour.

Between the lines: In general, the representation of women in law firms decreases the further up the ranks you look. That doesn't stop when they become partner — the most senior partners are much more male-dominated than partners generally.

By the numbers: Davis Polk touts its “commitment to developing, retaining and promoting women,” and has won the Gold Standard award from the Women in Law Empowerment Forum eight times. For six successive years between 2014 and 2019, however, not a single woman from Davis Polk served as lead counsel on a major M&A deal.

  • At Wachtell, the top M&A law firm in the world, six women led 13 deals between 2014 and 2020 — an average of just 2.2 deals per woman over seven years. By contrast 40 men led 299 deals between them, or 7.5 deals per male partner.

The bottom line: As one American Lawyer article put it: “If having a strong female mentor in a position of authority, such as the lead on a deal and the owner of a client relationship, is paramount to facilitating other women into that position, you first need to have enough women in those prominent roles. There are not.”

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