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May 16, 2019 Articles

One Law Firm’s Efforts to Help Women Attorneys Succeed

An interview with Jennifer J. Lee on Dentons’ WomenLEAD program.

By Davis G. Yee

Jennifer J. Lee is a partner in Dentons’ Litigation and Dispute Resolution practice group. She serves on Dentons’ Associate Development Committee and is active in Dentons WomenLEAD. Ms. Lee is also a member of the Asian American Bar Association of the Greater Bay Area.

What is WomenLEAD?

It is a firm committee of women partners. We are committed to creating programming and ensuring that our firm is attractive to women lawyers. We encourage our women lawyers to attain professional individual success, while also making sure they have the tools they need to get there.

How does WomenLEAD do that?

We sponsor a New Mothers Program. Under this program, when a woman is on maternity leave, she is matched with another mother who has gone through the leave process. There are two benefits to this. Number one, she can keep in touch with the firm while she is on leave. And number two, she has someone who can mentor her through the process before she goes on maternity leave and until she comes back. One thing that women don’t anticipate, especially the first time they have a child, is how significant the transition is on both ends of the process. And it’s not just the personal transition but also the professional transition. So the idea of the New Mothers Program is to connect women with someone who has gone through the process and who can help them through it.

We have another committee that was created just last year. It’s for parents, specifically to talk about and address challenges with having a family and working at a big firm.

Child care is a big issue for families with two working parents. How does the firm support working parents with child care needs?

That’s definitely something that the parenting committee is looking into. Partnering with service providers for emergency child care. That’s really critical. Litigation makes up 60 percent of our firm’s practice nationwide, and last-minute stuff happens in litigation. So that’s one of the areas that they are looking into. And another area is family therapy. What do you do if one of your children has a learning disability? How do you manage all of that? There are a lot of life issues that women lawyers face.

What was the genesis for WomenLEAD?

At the legacy firm I was with before the merger with Dentons, there was already a women’s networking team that I was a part of, and we had come up with the idea of a New Mothers Program but never formalized it. After the merger into Dentons, in fact the second year after the merger, a lot of brilliant women lawyers decided that we needed to reinstitute this idea of a growth and leadership network for women lawyers and professionals. One of those brilliant women lawyers is Kara Baysinger, who coauthored Courageous Counsel: Conversations with Women General Counsel in the Fortune 500. It is a book with in-depth interviews of women who have served as general counsel at America’s largest corporations or have played executive management roles in their legal departments. [Editor’s note: The other author is Michele Coleman Mayes.] Stemming from that, Dentons WomenLEAD created the Courageous Counsel Institute and the Courageous Counsel Leadership Academy to invite women general counsel for seminars.

WomenLEAD stands for Leadership, Entrepreneurism, Advancement, and Development. What does WomenLEAD do to promote women as leaders within the firm?

The long-term goal is not just to increase the number of women partners, but rather to increase the number of leaders in the firm. If you look at the statistics about women law partners, for example, they don’t look so bad if you just look at whether or not it says “partner” on the business card. But now the bigger question that WomenLEAD is trying to answer is how to get those women lawyers to be in positions of power. It’s a multifaceted answer. Part of it is business development. Law firms are businesses. The partner that brings in the most cash is king or queen. So WomenLEAD also sponsors a program called Preparing for Rain, a business development series. The program runs for an entire year. You meet once a month, so there are 12 sessions. We bring an outside business development coach. WomenLEAD also has a sponsorship program for female senior associates who want to become a partner. The idea for all of these programs is to create opportunities and skills for women lawyers to eventually be leaders.

Do you think that WomenLEAD has helped with retention of women lawyers at your firm?

I hope it has. For the entire time I’ve been with my group, since 2002, we have never had anyone leave to be a stay-at-home parent. This is a testament to Dentons, as well as the legacy firm that merged with it. They have invested in technology to essentially replicate your work desk at home, and there’s a lot of flexibility. The firm makes it really easy to work from home. As an example, the firm has an associate who lives on the peninsula but works in our Oakland office. Her husband works for a large tech company on the peninsula. She was initially reluctant to interview with us because of the commute. And I told her that that was something we could work out. We have associates who work at least one day a week from home.

Less time commuting certainly frees up time for family and to meet your billable hours.

For sure. Remember that associate who lives on the peninsula? She has a two-year-old daughter. Her husband, as I mentioned before, works for a large high-tech company. I’m sure he works a lot of hours. She works from home a few times a week, and other than two small blocks of time for child-related activities, she makes herself accessible around the clock. Last year she billed close to 2,400 hours! She’s very ambitious. She’s also smart and clearly willing to work hard. But I told her she needed to stop doing this because we want her to be with the firm for a long time, and she needs to maintain a healthy balance for long-term happiness.

Davis G. Yee is an adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law.

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