In a recent study by the National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL), research shows the percentage of entry-level female attorneys hired by large law firms decreased slightly for the first time since the annual survey’s inception in 2006. While the decrease from 48% to 47% is not by any means a sharp decline, it is still cause for concern. Only time will tell, but it may well indicate diminished opportunities for women to hold leadership roles within large firms in the years to come.

As quoted in an interview with The National Law Journal for Karen Sloan’s recent article, NAWL President Heather Giordanella maintains that “women lawyers already leave big-firm practice at a greater pace than their male counterparts, and this narrowing of the pipeline at the entry level, however slight, only further decreases the pool of women available for promotion.” The Journal also cited figures from the American Bar Association which indicate the percentage of women entering law schools has peaked and fallen, which may further contribute to the waning number of female associate hires. Thus, the concern now becomes whether these declines signal the start of a general downward trend for female lawyers in large, prominent firms.

In fact, women already face significant gaps in equity partnership, compensation and managerial roles. According to the National Law Journal, “although underrepresented in this year’s entering associate class, women were overrepresented in nonequity positions including staff attorney and counsel. Women represented a ‘dismally low’ 15 percent of equity partners” and “comprised 55 percent of staff attorneys. Similarly, women made up 34 percent of the of-counsel ranks.”

In the same vein, the report also found that only 5% of large firms have women as managing directors, likely directly correlated to the overrepresentation in nonequity and underrepresentation in equity. A substantial gap in male-female compensation also exists. As the Journal noted, the 2011 pay gap was “relatively small among associates, but increased at the higher ranks. For instance, women of counsel earned approximately 92 percent of what their male counterparts earned. Nonequity female attorneys earned 95 of what their male counterparts did, while that figure was 86 percent for female equity partners — a discrepancy of $70,000 at the typical firm.”

While the long run effects of these trends on women and the legal landscape remain to be seen, the short term message from the NAWL is clear. This past year marked a definite deviation from the norm, jeopardizing what had been positive trends for female advancement in the profession.