March 01, 2018 Feature

Jumpstarting Gender Parity, the Hackathon Way

By Cynthia L. Cooper

The toy footballs spiraled from the stage into the audience of 150 at Stanford Law School once the team of lawyers completed their 10-minute presentation on their proposal for improving the status of women in law firms. The word on the balls—“Mansfield”—was selected to reflect Arabella Mansfield, the first woman in the United States to obtain a law license, and was reinforced by a large “M” on the pink athletic jerseys worn by the lawyers.

Sure, there was a bit of flash to this Shark Tank–style pitch, but the lawyers were competing to win the best idea to tackle gender disparity, and their concept was serious. The team proposed that law firms adopt a “Mansfield Rule” to require the active consideration of women candidates for top leadership positions in law firms just as the National Football League adopted an active consideration rule (the Rooney Rule) to increase the number of African American coaches.

The Mansfield Rule team, one of nine teams competing, wasn’t alone in adding creative spice to presentations on Stanford’s campus near Palo Alto, California. One group performed skits on stage, showing how women associates are derailed by mistakes, and then offered a corrective program to advance their careers with executive coaches and peer-to-peer networks in a proposal called the OnTrack-for-Partnership Program.

Another team, dubbed SMART (Solutions to Measure, Advance and Reward Talent), shared a 55-page binder describing how an app will make sure women get credit for all of their firm contributions, while a booklet from the Five Year Moment Team printed 19 à la carte ideas to bolster women lawyers in the years before and after ascension to partnership.

The pitches were the culmination of six months of work by 81 participants in the first Women in Law Hackathon in 2016. Most participants began their involvement the same way as Patricia Gillette, a former law firm partner and co-founder of the Opt-in Project. “I asked, ‘What’s a hackathon?’ I had no idea,” Gillette says.

Unless lawyers dwell in Silicon Valley or are familiar with coding culture, the term “hackathon” might conjure up criminals breaking into websites. But the term has a positive connotation involving exploratory group investigations to break through logjams, deriving from days-long gatherings of techies who sit in a room together with laptops and boxes of pizza to find a solution to a single software problem.

The concept has since expanded to describe a group of people working together on any specific issue with the goal of designing viable solutions in a fixed amount of time. Hackathons typically involve multiple teams that work independently to study a problem and present findings—often with a reward for the best idea.

The Women in Law Hackathon was organized around finding new approaches to the stubborn problem of gender disparity in law firms. Women, for example, still represent only 18 percent of equity partners, according to the most recent research by the National Association of Women Lawyers in 2015, a number that rose a bare 2 percent in a decade. At the same time, women filled approximately half the slots in law schools. The study also shows that women equity partners earn four-fifths of the compensation of men. What’s more, in 2012, only five out of the 250 top firms could claim 25 percent women partners, according to a survey by the National Law Journal. And despite expenditures in all sectors of $8 billion a year on diversity initiatives, change has been monumentally slow.

“Part of the problem is that people aren’t sure what to do. They want to become more diverse and inclusive, but I don’t think they are sure of the right solution,” says Caren Ulrich Stacy, the San Francisco Bay Area–based founder and CEO of Diversity Lab, which created the Women in Law Hackathon. “People were feeling fatigued by what they’ve done that’s not worked. We’ve had leave policies in place; we’ve had affinity groups in place; we’ve had mentoring programs in place—for decades. And none of those things seem to be moving the needle. I think firms have a real desire to try new stuff and see if it’s working,” Stacy says.

Law firms also face increasing pressure from corporate law departments for more diversity and accountability by outside counsel. Firms that want a competitive advantage are eager to gain new traction, according to Stacy.

The Women in Law Hackathon set its sights on igniting new ideas for the effective retention and advancement of women in law firms. With sponsorship from Bloomberg Law and support of Stanford Law School, the group approached 10 law firms in the top tier about participating. All said yes. Within two weeks, 54 law firm partners and 18 diversity and talent experts had filled the roster.

How It Works

Unlike many coding hackathons that last for a long weekend, the Women in Law Hackathon extended over six months in 2016, although the meetings convened in virtual spaces until the final pitch session before a panel of judges at Stanford. There, three winning teams and two crowd favorites would win a donation of $5,000 to $10,000 to a nonprofit.

Nine teams of seven members were created, and cross-pollination was a feature of each. Rather than creating teams that represented a single firm, the organizers mixed up the participants, putting people on teams from different firms, geographical locations, and practice areas, including many whose day-to-day responsibilities did not involve diversity issues. Male (slightly more than one-quarter) and female lawyers, including managing partners and senior leaders, from firms in the top 100 and the top 200 were on each team, as well as one Stanford law student. In addition, each team was assigned two diversity specialists to serve as advisors.

Once launched, the teams fell into a five-step process: (1) researching and discussing the problem; (2) brainstorming and strategizing on possible solutions; (3) focusing on one idea and refining it; (4) planning and packaging the idea for the pitch presentation; and (5) executing the pitch at the in-person gathering at Stanford.

Some teams came up with solutions quickly; others deliberated over months. Freed to think in an open format with counterparts in the wider community, participants say that they were able to see the problem with a new lens—not as one that solely dogs their own practice, but as a problem that weighs down the profession.

“When you have all these perspectives, you get good ideas and different ideas,” says Anne M. Cappella, a partner in the Silicon Valley office of Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP and a Hackathon participant. “We looked at research and talked to people who are coaches to come up with ideas that could work across the board. It’s eye-opening for people who are not normally dealing with diversity in their firms.”

To research the subject, participants had at their fingertips a white paper prepared by Stanford law students, as well as 200 articles in an online library. Some did their own investigations too. “One of the male members of our team had a powerful job as a leader of his firm. He brought the firm’s women’s initiative into his office and had repeated brainstorming sessions with them,” says Jenny Waters, executive director of the National Association of Women Lawyers, based in Chicago, who served as a team advisor. “He wanted to be a useful member of the team, and he wanted solutions that would work for his firm. The Hackathon process opened the door to conversations that may not have been held otherwise.”

But as the calendar clicked forward toward the deadline, each had to narrow down to a single focus. The teams were tasked with coming up with a single plan for action.

“The core element of the Hackathon is that you wanted to pitch solutions. We didn’t just want to talk about how much of a problem this is, but we wanted innovative solutions,” says Grace Chediak, an associate in the San Francisco office of Latham & Watkins LLP, who joined the process as a law student at Stanford.

When the pitch dates and in-person gathering grew closer, something else kicked in: The lawyers wanted to win. “We’re a very competitive bunch,” says Deborah Epstein Henry, a consultant and advisor to one team. The vibe of the Hackathon culture coincidentally sparked the natural competitive instincts of its law-fueled participants.

Waters estimates that her team spent a collective 100 volunteer hours in the process of the Hackathon. According to Diversity Lab, the teams, combined, met 137 times over the six-month period in pursuit of their favored idea.

Nine Teams, Nine Ideas

The nine teams proposed a variety of golden ideas about how to advance women in law firms. Several of the ideas from the Women in Law Hackathon have recently moved into the implementation phase by individual firms (often connected to members of the team that envisioned it) or by a rollout from Diversity Lab.

The SMART team stepped away with the first prize. “The idea behind our solution is that there are supposed values at law firms that lawyers spend time on, but their talents don’t get credited. We want to rethink this by factoring in more variables,” says Epstein, a team advisor. “It goes to the very core of the law firm function.”

Studies show, for example, that women do more law firm “housekeeping” assignments, but that it isn’t valued in the same way as other firm work in advancement and compensation.

The detailed SMART proposal sets out eight factors for law firm measurement: billable and pro bono hours; business development; advancing diversity; quality of work; client satisfaction; lawyer development; leadership and initiative; and external visibility. The team further expanded on each of the factors by articulating the building blocks that comprise them and did a mock-up of an app that would allow lawyers to log in their contributions and track performance. Three firms have committed to trying SMART, according to Diversity Lab.

Two law firms also have committed to implementing the second-place winner, the Power Development Program. In the proposal, firms will embed women lawyers onsite with an institutional client—one full month, followed by five days each month for 11 months. The goal is to help women become knowledgeable about the business side and position them with strong relationship partners that can enhance business succession down the road.

The Five Year Moment snagged third place with its hyper-focused program of support for women just before and after partnership. Its menu of options seeks to overcome attrition by addressing institutional biases, for example, in the assignment of origination credit, and by filling gaps experienced by individual lawyers, such as inadequate mentoring.

In implementing a project around the concept, Diversity Lab combined it with two other proposals—an OnTrack-to-Partnership Program, a crowd favorite, and an OnTrack Sponsorship App. The lab is even going so far as to develop an app for usage. A team approach involving partners, firm management, clients, and external coaches will support mid-level lawyers as they move through this transition phase. The app will help lawyers follow their progress with sponsors. Fourteen firms have expressed an interest in it.

An idea called CompFirmation suggests linguistic analysis to look at law firm management tools for ways in which language proclivities might mute women’s actual accomplishments. In short, are women bragging in the same way as men? The implementation by Diversity Lab will study self-evaluation memos for “textual clues in how women advocate for themselves,” Stacy says. Three firms have agreed to test it out.

The most popular idea by far, though, is the Mansfield Rule, the other crowd favorite at the pitch session. The team proposed that firms use the Mansfield Rule to ensure that women lawyers are considered for seven high-level positions in law firms, including managing partner and executive committee membership. The idea took note of the success of the Rooney Rule in the National Football League, which saw the number of African American head coaches increase from 6 percent to 22 percent in three years. In order to incentivize law firms to try to take this step in a serious way, the Mansfield Rule team proposed the creation of a client pool that would give extra attention to firms that are “Mansfield certified.”

“Our first goal was, ‘It’s got to be simple.’ The mentality of law firms means that a lot is rooted in tradition and precedent. They are archaic structures. We tried not to make it too onerous and to look at the real law firm. The Mansfield Rule allows you to catapult women immediately,” says Gillette, an advisor to the team.

As of September 2017, 44 firms have agreed to try a Mansfield Rule implementation formulated by Diversity Lab. It calls for women and people of color to be 30 percent of the pool in consideration for key leadership positions, such as equity partner promotions, executive or compensation committee membership, chairperson, practice group leadership, and more. Firms that engage in the process will be invited to participate in a two-day client forum with 55 in-house legal departments from corporations that have signed on—ranging from Microsoft to PepsiCo.

Stacy notes that key to all five of the implementation efforts will be ongoing monitoring, accountability, and measurement of the outcomes.

Future Model or Today Trend?

The hackathon approach differs from other diversity efforts, according to Linda Bray Chanow, executive director of the Center for Women in Law at the University of Texas School of Law at Austin, which runs a biennual Women’s Power Summit, because it gets people out of their ordinary environment for an extended period of time to look at the problem anew. “Within law firms, one of the biggest obstacles is that it is horizontal. You have practice groups and your silos, and it’s very difficult to enforce change,” says Chanow, who served as a Hackathon advisor. “You had a lot of good ideas because it brings together so many people for a common goal.”

Diversity Lab, working again with Bloomberg Law, has two new hackathons in the works, refining the process and inviting new partners. One will run from February to June 2018 and is hosted by Harvard Law School Executive Education; a second program will take place from July to November 2018 with hosts Northwestern Law School and UC Hastings College of Law. Posed with a single question—“How do we successfully increase and sustain diversity and inclusion in the legal profession?”—these hackathons will address advancement for women and other marginalized groups, such as lawyers of color, lawyers with disabilities, veterans, ethnic minorities, and LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, queer) lawyers. The teams will include in-house lawyers as well as law firms.

Other changes shorten the overall hackathon time period from six months to four. All participants will convene in person at the beginning as well as at the end. They will spend the first eight weeks analyzing the problem with a suggested short list of topics, and teams will be organized thereafter based on topics that draw each participant’s interest.

Gemma L. Descoteaux, a shareholder at the Polsinelli law firm in Dallas who is on the board of the Dallas Women Lawyers Association, is generally critical of what she calls “pinkwashing” by top law firms that talk the language of gender diversity but fail to take actionable and measureable steps to move the goal forward. She sees hope in the hackathon process. “In order to affect change, you’ve got to get people in power, and you can only get so much time. This offers a structured, specific amount of time to focus on this issue. It takes a surgical approach. ‘Let’s go in and see what we can do with a laser focus,’” she says. Her firm will participate in a diversity hackathon for the first time in 2018.

Although the Women in Law Hackathon exceeded her expectations, even Diversity Lab’s Stacy recognizes that the hackathon is not the end-all to the diversity conundrum. “It took decades to happen; it’ll take decades to solve,” Stacy says. “I think it’s going to be incremental. Not one of these ideas is going to be a silver bullet. All of them together are likely to have a positive impact. What remains in question is how quick and what the impact will be.”

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Cynthia L. Cooper

Cynthia L. Cooper is a journalist in New York City who frequently writes about law and justice.