January 19, 2000
Sherwin P. Simmons Chair
American Bar Association
Commission on Multidisciplinary Practice
541 North Fairbanks Court
Chicago, IL 60611
I am a partner in the law firm of Crowell & Moring in Washington, D.C., where I have practiced since 1981, and have long been active in local and national professional associations of the bar. I have worked hard to bring about full and equal participation of women and people of color in the legal profession, and to eliminate barriers to advancement. I understand that your Commission is considering whether the rules governing the legal profession ought to be changed to allow lawyers to share fees and partner with non-lawyers in multidisciplinary arrangements. From my vantagepoint, it appears to me that multidisciplinary partnerships would provide an attractive alternative for the delivery of legal services, and I urge the bar to reform its rules to permit such practice structures.
I graduated from law school in 1973, and then clerked for a federal appellate judge and for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. When I graduated from law school, a small minority of my class were women. Today, there is virtual parity in the numbers of men and women graduating from law school. Unfortunately, women have not achieved parity in the private sector of law practice. According to a survey published in the March 1999 issue of American Lawyer, women account for 38.7 percent of law firm associates, but just 13.1 percent of equity partners.
Why have women not achieved parity when it comes to making partner and practicing as partner? My professional experience as a practicing lawyer and as a board member of several public companies, my service as a trustee for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc., and my participation in the ABA Commission on Women has given me a number of insights into this question. Law firm culture often fails to accommodate the needs of working women and men who have commitments other than just their careers. Law firms, with profit centers based on billable hours, do not tolerate the flexible work schedules many women desire in order to balance the needs of their family members, both young and old—against the demands of their jobs. Even where lawyers are able to work part-time, they often discover that their work assignments are less desirable and that they are derailed from the partnership track. Senior, established partners- the vast majority of whom are men-recall with fondness their single-minded devotion to the firm. They have little tolerance for, or ability to adapt to, a more flexible practice model sought by younger, almost always women, lawyers. Moreover, firms have not committed themselves to the training and mentoring that young lawyers need to succeed. Young women lawyers, in particular, lack role models among the more senior lawyers at their firms. The net effect is that young women lawyers are increasingly dissatisfied with law firm practice.
And I am not alone in these observations. Accordingly to a 1998 NALP Foundation survey, attrition rates for women associates are far higher than for their male counterparts, with the largest differences evident in the years closest to partnership decisions. As the NALP Foundation found, attrition does not stop with associates. Increasingly, women partners are dissatisfied with the work environment in their law firms and are leaving to pursue other alternatives. In the View of the NALP Foundation, law firms are an endangered workplace.
I do not believe that professional service firms inherently are hostile to the training and advancement of women. Look at the large accounting firms. Each has created programs designed to increase the number of women and minority partners; to develop mentoring and training relationships with more senior professionals; and to provide a flexible work environment to balance professional obligations with outside responsibilities. These programs have proved to be quite successful, and four of the five large accounting firms are now ranked by Working Mother or Fortune magazine as among the100 best places to work in America.
For these reasons, it is not surprising that these accounting firms, as well as management consulting firms and investment banks, are recruiting very successfully at our law schools, as this Commission observed in its recent report. According to the latest employment analysis of the National Association for Law Placement, almost 15 percent of recent law school graduates took jobs in the business sector, the highest level in the last twenty-four years. In the present climate, however, lawyers who work for these sorts of organizations are not permitted to use their law degrees to deliver legal services to clients, and can only provide services that are properly offered by non-lawyers. Over the past year, some in the ABA have argued that such lawyers are engaged in "civil disobedience" and should be charged with disciplinary violations by the state bar which licensed them. And some states have signaled interest in pursuing charges against these lawyers. This state of affairs leaves these lawyers with two equally unpleasant alternatives: turning in their bar licenses or putting their licenses at risk by continuing their activities.
Multidisciplinary arrangements offer alternative practice opportunities for lawyers who want to practice law. I expect that these opportunities will be found in existing structures, like the accounting and management consulting firms that I just mentioned, as well as in newly created firms. The Commission on Multidisciplinary Practice heard from a number of witnesses who spoke about the desirability of lawyers participation in family mediation centers, geriatric and elder care clinics, advocacy firms for special needs children, financial services centers, and environmental consulting firms, among others. Such possibilities are limited only by the needs of the clients being served, and will enable lawyers to work collaboratively with experts in other disciplines to provide clients with integrated advice, emphasizing negotiation and dispute resolution over the lawyer’s traditional, adversarial approach to problem solving.
It is not only lawyers who are looking for choice in practice structures. Clients want the option to retain one provider capable of delivering a number of interrelated professional services. At Crowell & Moring, I advise large and small corporations on issues involving federal public contract law, regulation legislation, and the federal budget and appropriations. I have represented numerous Fortune 500 companies in complex business transactions. I also serve on the boards of directors of several public corporations, including the Gannett Company, Crestar Financial Services Corporation, Continental Airlines, Inc., And Fannie May. My clients, and the companies for whom I serve as a corporate director, seek professional service firms to advise them on a wide range of issues, including mergers and business promotion, and regulatory matters.
Moreover, because of the explosion in electronic commerce, companies of any size are doing business globally, and are engaging in multidisciplinary deals. Indeed, in just the last few years the use of the Internet has changed the way in which vendors market and sell, and consumers purchase, goods and services. Barriers created by public laws and regulations are coming down- just look at the recent congressional repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, a Depression-era regulatory structure that enforced the separation of financial, investment and insurance institutions. Global economic trends, in turn, change client expectations about their service providers. Clients do not want to retain different service firms that they must separately educate, coordinate efforts among the different firms, and supervise each firm.
The breaking down of existing barriers is never easy, particularly when the change is seen as a threat to the structures with which we have become familiar. Multidisciplinary organizations will not supplant the traditional; stand-alone law firms, but will provide an additional alternative practice structure. There is room in the market for traditional law firms, as well as for independent firms of engineers, or business consultants, or information technology specialists, or accountants. The key here is that the provider and consumer of legal services should have the ability to choose multidisciplinary practice as an option, and that choice should not be artificially constrained by bar rules. I urge the Commission, and the ABA, to lead the bar forward and lift the current restrictions on multidisciplinary practice.
Karen Hastie Williams