chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
February 27, 2012 Articles

Selecting Tomorrow's Leaders—and Ensuring Women Are Among Them

A turbulent and uncertain marketplace requires leaders who are equipped to handle its challenges—and the urgency is even greater in light of the pending retirement of current firm leaders.

By Ida Abbott

Law firms need to get serious about finding new leaders. In Altman Weil’s 2011 Survey of Law Firms in Transition, 47 percent of firms identified retirement and succession of baby boomers as the top issue in preparing firms for the changes that lie ahead. Yet very few law firms have succession planning processes in place. A few years ago many firms started leadership development programs, but when the economy collapsed in 2008 other initiatives took priority. More than three years later, the legal marketplace remains shaky, and firms understandably remain preoccupied with maintaining profitability. But they can no longer delay taking steps to identify and prepare new leaders. A turbulent and uncertain marketplace requires leaders who are equipped to handle its challenges—and the urgency is even greater in light of the pending retirement of current firm leaders. Nearly 70 percent of law firm partners are baby boomers, lawyers in their fifties and sixties who will retire over the next few years. Many boomers are deferring retirement for financial reasons, but when they start to leave in significant numbers, law firms will be under severe pressure to replace them with new leaders and rainmakers.

Firms should treat this situation with some urgency because succession planning, if done correctly, takes time. When current baby boomer leaders and rainmakers start to retire, firms will need new leaders who are prepped and ready to take over their responsibilities. This cannot be done overnight. Without a systematic, well-thought-out method, firms restrict their ability to find the leaders they need. They assume the same qualities that have made lawyers successful leaders until now will also make them effective leaders in the new world. While some firms may be lucky and select good leaders this way, others will make terrible choices.

Law firms cannot risk bad choices. They need systems for identifying and training leaders. They have to motivate people to become leaders, open paths to leadership, and help them prepare for leadership. And they must make sure that their new leaders include women.

Opening the Doors That Keep Women Out of Leadership There are shockingly few women in law firm leadership. Women and men have started their careers in law firms in almost equal numbers for more than two decades, but firms have continued practices that prevent women from achieving their leadership potential. This has so discouraged women that the number of women in law firms has actually started to decline. Since 2006, the number of women in large law firms has decreased each year; in 2010, the number of women attorneys reached a five-year low.

An even greater concern is that women’s advancement into partnership and leadership has virtually stalled. Women in 2011 constitute almost one-third of lawyers but barely 15 percent of law firm equity partners. With such a small pool of partners, women also remain underrepresented in firm leadership. According to a 2011 survey by the National Association of Women Lawyers, most large firms have at most two women members on their highest governing committee, while a substantial number have either no women or only one woman on that committee, and only five percent of firms have women firm-wide managing partners––a percentage that has not changed since 2006.

These figures belie law firms’ mythical belief that they are meritocracies. Women are prevented from moving into partnership and leadership not because they are not capable but because gender bias pervades the culture and decision-making systems of law firms. This bias is subtle and unintentional, but that neither excuses it nor makes it less harmful. There is a considerable body of research documenting the damaging effects of bias on women’s career advancement. Here are just three recent examples:

•A 2011 study of associate evaluations in a Wall Street law firm found that gender bias made it three times more likely for men to be promoted to partner.

•Women in law firms make substantially less money than their male counterparts at every level of seniority, even when they outperform them.

•Firms that explicitly call themselves meritocratic more often fall prey to gender bias, with managers paying more bonus money to men than to women.

Women who do become partners and wish to be law firm leaders do not escape theharmful effects of bias. Numerous studies have shown that the traits associated with leadership are stereotypically male, which creates several dilemmas for women. Women leaders face higher standards and receive fewer rewards than men. Their behavior is judged as either “feminine,” which makes them too soft and therefore less competent, or “unfeminine,” which makes them unlikable and less effective. As a result, many women lawyers with extraordinary leadership potential are overlooked for leadership roles because they are not perceived or appreciated as leaders and their contributions tend to be less visible and less valued. Stereotypes also cause retiring partners, who are predominantly men, to transfer their (mostly male) clients to other men because they assume male clients will relate better to other men.

Other obstacles to women’s advancement are due to law firm politics. Like other organizations, law firms are political. Lawyers advance in them through power and influence, not because of their legal skills or leadership abilities. To become a law firm leader requires being well connected to influential partners, having access to powerful networks, and having champions who give you “inside information,” get you appointed to important positions and committees, and send you business and clients. But women don’t fully appreciate the importance of law firm politics; they buy into the meritocracy myth. They think being a good lawyer will get them the recognition and rewards they deserve. They remain unaware of the “unwritten” rules by which partners constantly negotiate for favors, privileges, and special treatment. They fail to build up the political capital and connections needed to break into the circles of power, so they remain excluded from those inner circles where influential partners make key decisions behind the scenes. For more women to become leaders, firm decision making must become more transparent—but women also must be more strategic and politically savvy. They must be clear about what they want, let others know, elicit support from people who can help, and forge ahead with confidence and determination.

Leadership Systems and Succession Planning Leadership development and succession planning can ensure a smooth and seamless transition to new leadership when current leaders retire, step down, or leave. Succession planning requires a firm to define the attributes and competencies of leadership thoughtfully and objectively within both the current context and anticipated future trends and changes. It also requires the firm to consider and assess all firm lawyers to determine which ones demonstrate the propensity, motivation, and aptitude for leadership.

By emphasizing objective criteria and reducing political forces, firms can also remove many of the obstacles that thwart women’s ambitions. In the process of examining the facts and assessing lawyers as individuals, they can move beyond the assumptions or stereotypes that keep women out of consideration for important leadership roles. At a time when law firms need to find more than a few strong and diverse leaders, this process will also greatly enlarge the pool of talented prospects.

Succession planning should begin by defining the competencies of leadership required by the firm. Decisions about which competencies are most desirable should be made within the context of the firm’s core values and its current culture and business goals. But those involved in the decision making must resist the temptation to create clones. They should not assume that their own characteristics and abilities are the most advantageous ones for future leaders. Leaders-in-training will take the helm at some later time and will be responsible for carrying out the firm’s long-term plans in a rapidly changing legal marketplace. It is therefore important to anticipate the diverse competencies that will be necessary to sustain the firm’s well-being and meet the new challenges the firm will encounter down the road.

Related to succession planning is the preparation of emerging leaders to take charge of client relationships. The client transfer process must be carefully planned well in advance of a partner’s retirement, as it may take some time for the client to develop trust and confidence in the new lawyer. It may also take time for the junior lawyer to transition into the client leadership role. The retiring partner can serve as a valuable mentor and facilitator during the transition period.

Succession Planning and Women Repeated research has shown a strong positive correlation between having more women in top leadership and higher corporate profits. In addition to their cognitive skills and professional accomplishments, women possess the relational, collaborative, empowering, and emotional intelligence attributes that new leaders need. Law firms cannot afford to continue squandering valuable resources by keeping women out of leadership.

To increase the presence of women in leadership, firms should implement processes and protections that ensure leadership development and client transitions are carried out fairly, and that women are considered at every level. This is not an easy sell because the men who control and benefit from the current system have little incentive to change. After all, men hold 85 percent of equity partnerships and 95 percent of top leadership positions and therefore almost all the power in law firms. But men must open the door so that more women can enter. Women have leadership attributes that are indispensable in the new marketplace; clients know it and expect gender diversity from outside counsel. Studies have shown that having more women in corporate leadership brings better financial results; law firms could benefit in the same way. Men who care about the future of their firm must recognize that its future success depends on having more women leaders.

Firms may also have to persuade women that leadership is worthwhile. Being in the minority places women leaders at substantial risk. Their accomplishments are underappreciated and their mistakes are magnified. While some women may see the scarcity of women in leadership as an opportunity and be eager to step up, others may see it as discouraging and be deterred from seeking to lead.

It is imperative that women see themselves as leaders and move into roles where others see them as leaders as well. Many women will need to be inspired and actively encouraged to lead key committees, practice groups, and firm management. Show them how leadership will give them:

•greater control over their career;

•power to achieve desired results for themselves, their teams, and the firm;

•more client opportunities;

•new outlets for creativity;

•greater effectiveness as change agents;

•new ways to make an impact;

•financial rewards;

•ability to help other women advance;

•added meaning to their work; and

•expanded visibility in the community and profession.

The time to act is now. If your firm does not have a succession planning process under way, it should start without delay. As part of the planning process, create systems that ensure that women are encouraged, groomed, and sponsored for firm and client leadership. Here are some key steps:

•Make it a strategic business priority to increase the gender diversity on key decision-making committees and in leadership positions.

•Establish fair, objective, and transparent criteria and systems for selecting leaders and transitioning clients.

•Create processes to ensure that women are considered for all leadership positions and client transitions.

•Track and compare by gender the partners considered and selected to chair and serve on top management committees, assume key leadership positions, and take over important client relationships.

•Create policies and guidelines for all partners, especially current leaders and rainmakers, setting out expectations that they will groom and sponsor women for leadership and important client roles.

•Hold partners accountable for adhering to these systems and policies.

The impending retirements of baby boomers will create many vacancies, affording ample opportunities to bring fresh faces into firm governance and client relationship management. Firms will need the best leaders to step into those roles, and many of those leaders must be women. Those firms that start today to prepare the leaders of tomorrow will have a competitive advantage when that time comes.

Keywords: woman advocate, litigation, leadership planning, succession planning