July 10, 2013

Law Firms: Storming the Private Practice Castle

G.M. Filisko

When Patricia Gillette started her career in 1976, it was sadly common for women to be told they shouldn’t be litigators. “People were still saying, ‘You ought to go into family law or something that doesn’t involve litigation’—and this was in California!” says the partner at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP in San Francisco.

Gillette ignored that advice but was ever-conscious of how her actions might be perceived in her firm. “There was no such thing as part time or flextime, and I wanted to take my kids to swimming lessons,” she recalls. “I did it by telling the partners I had a 2PM appointment twice a week. They probably thought I was seeking a shrink.”

Arlinda Locklear faced a similar experience after graduating from law school in 1976. “When I started at the Native American Rights Fund in Boulder, Colorado, a client in South Dakota called and said, ‘First, she’s not in our tribe, and, second, she’s a woman. We don’t want her assigned to us,’” recounts Locklear, who in 1987 started a solo practice in Washington, D.C., specializing in Indian law. “The executive director said, ‘Give her six months.’ Now we’ve had a long, successful relationship.

“That said, for years I was the only woman in federal court,” adds the two-time victor before the U.S. Supreme Court. “Certainly, the legal culture wasn’t kind to women in those days. There are still some lawyers who probably believe I won my second Supreme Court case because I was eight months pregnant and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wanted to support me. People would joke about it, but they were serious.”

Tremendous Advances

Today, the joke’s on those who doubt women’s skills in private practice. “Women have absolutely made tremendous advances,” says Carolyn Lamm, a partner at White & Case LLP in Washington, D.C., and 2009–2010 ABA president. “There have been fairly significant gains in the number of equity partners, though with huge amounts we should still be gaining. There are also women chairs of several big, credible firms.”

Hilarie Bass, an eight-year copresident of Greenberg Traurig, LLP in Miami, can also cite strides since she entered the profession in 1981. “The change over 30 years is radical,” she says. “When I started, it was quite a unique event to have women leadership, and now it’s quite common. Our firm has more than 50 women in leadership, and women are also among the top business generators.”

Some even believe gender is an advantage today. “We now have a much more level playing field than when I entered the practice in 1985,” says Deborah Kuchler, a founding partner of the women-owned 20-lawyer firm Kuchler Polk Schell Weiner & Richeson, LLC in New Orleans. “Judges are much more respectful and clients more willing to entrust major litigation to us. Now I actually feel like it’s a benefit to be a female lawyer.”

Being a Risk Taker

There’s still progress to be made. Locklear can think of only one other female solo in her area. “It’s still not considered the norm for women to be risk takers,” she says. “My first case before the Supreme Court was considered a sure loser and nobody wanted to touch it. I was willing to take the risk. And women still don’t want to take the risk of private practice on their own.”

Gillette also believes women need laser focus on leadership positions. “It’s been a game changer for policies on issues like maternity leave, part time, and flextime to be routine,” she says. “That’s allowed women and men to have families and practice. But I liken it to [the PBS TV series] Downton Abbey, where women are in the drawing room talking about flextime and maternity leave and men are in the parlor smoking cigars and talking about the firm’s future and how to get more business.

“Women stayed in that discussion for too long, and it’s kept us from getting economic power,” Gillette continues. “As we get more women in rainmaker and institutional leadership positions, that will continue to change.”

Lamm is on the same page. “We’ve accomplished tremendous things and made tremendous strides, but it takes every woman helping others every day,” she says. “It’s not to be minimized how important is the mentorship and training of women by other women.”

G.M. Filisko

G.M. Filisko is a lawyer and an award-winning, Chicago-based freelance journalist who covers legal, real estate, business, and personal finance topics for such publications as the ABA Journal, Consumers Digest, REALTOR Magazine, AARP.com, and Bankrate.com.