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May 17, 2019 Article

It Takes Us All to Tango: Seeking Gender Parity in a Law Firm Environment

What law firms can do to foster the promotion of women and what women can do to promote themselves.

By Dawn Mertineit and Katherine E. Perrelli

It is no secret that, like many other professions, the legal profession has been male-dominated for decades. Even some major law firms did not promote women to partnership until the 1970s or later. While times have changed, the fact remains that the vast majority of top law firms have far more male partners than female partners. In fact, an AmLaw 100 firm recently landed in hot water upon announcing its crop of 12 new partners: 11 men and only 1 woman (and, notably, all white). The negative press in the wake of the announcement even included an article in the New York Times highlighting the backlash—including a group of general counsels and chief legal officers who published an open letter expressing their concern about the lack of diversity in partnership ranks among top firms.

The slow trickle of progress has been observed by the National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL), which grimly noted in its Report of the 2018 NAWL Survey on Retention and Promotion of Women in Law Firms that “in the 11 years that NAWL has tracked the data, there has been relatively little progress made in the representation of women” in partnership and leadership roles. This has led NAWL to challenge firms to increase the percentage of women equity partners to one-third of all incoming equity partners by 2020—hardly an aggressive goal when considering that half of enrolled law students are women (and nearly half of all law firm associates are women), but mindful of the reality that only 20 percent of equity partners in 2018 were women. 

What Law Firms Can Do to Foster the Promotion
of Women

Although NAWL data shows that firms are consistently recruiting women as nearly half of their associates, those numbers are not reflected in the non-equity partner ranks, and the metrics are worse when we look at female equity partners. While most big law firms recognize that allowing flexible schedules, remote working arrangements, and generous leave policies are critical to support their women attorneys (and, in fact, all attorneys), there are many other steps that can help foster an environment that allows women to succeed. Here are just a few things firms can consider doing to facilitate the promotion and retention of women at the partnership ranks—and to help them become rainmakers:

  • Implement the “Mansfield Rule.” The Mansfield Rule is a modification of the Rooney Rule, named for Dan Rooney, former owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who proposed that National Football League teams commit to interviewing at least one minority candidate for head coaching positions. The Mansfield Rule was born from initiatives of the Diversity Lab, an incubator for innovative ideas and solutions that boost diversity and inclusion in the law. The Mansfield Rule, which is aptly named for Arabella Mansfield, the first woman admitted to the practice of law in the United States, requires that 30 percent or more of the candidates being considered for leadership and governance roles be women or minorities (and “Mansfield 2.0” adds LGBTQ+ attorneys to the mix). The Mansfield Rule is still relatively new, with roughly 50 firms signing on to the initiative in 2017; as of August 2018, 27 firms were “Mansfield Certified Plus,” meaning that they had reached “at least 30 percent women and minority lawyer representation in a notable number of their current leadership roles and committees.” But even given the relative infancy of the Mansfield Rule, the success of the Rooney Rule is cause for optimism—at the start of the 2006 football season, 22 percent of head coaches were black, as opposed to just 6 percent prior to the implementation of the rule. In addition to signing on to this initiative, firms should also consider a review of the process for recruiting and promoting law firm leaders. Specifically, firms should consider whether there is a thoughtful process for the promotion of diverse attorneys into leadership roles and, if not, what can be done to create more leadership opportunities for diverse attorneys.
  • Create diverse panels of interviewers and decision makers. Not surprisingly, research shows better outcomes for diverse candidates and employees when those making decisions on hiring, promotion, compensation, and the like are themselves a diverse group. Thus, law firms should provide opportunities for and encourage women to serve on hiring committees, management committees, and other governing boards to ensure that a diversity of views and experiences contributes to hiring, compensation, promotion, and elevation decisions. In addition, we recommend firms consider implementing a “Rooney Rule” type program in the interview and hiring process. At the authors’ firm, starting in 2016 following a pilot program, the firm implemented a program called the “Rooney Presumption,” in which it is presumed that at least one diverse candidate is interviewed for each open associate position, unless certain limited exceptions apply. After the firm launched the program, diverse hires among associates climbed to 44 percent. In 2018, that number climbed to 53 percent of incoming associates. This is one way to optimize opportunities for diverse hires and to build a diverse talent pipeline.
  • Create formal mentoring or sponsorship programs (or both). While informal mentoring is helpful for attorneys, firms should consider implementing more formal, structured mentoring and sponsorship programs for diverse attorneys (women, people of color, LGBTQ+, and those with disabilities). Following this model, our firm launched the Triad Mentoring Program six years ago to provide institutional support for attorneys at a critical transition point in their careers—associates nearing and considered for partnership. Participants are invited to participate in a year-long program focused on professional development designed to cultivate relationships between a rising attorney and both a mentor and a sponsor (the “triad”), who are senior leaders and partners in the firm. Not only does the program provide attorneys with coaching and support, but it allows them invaluable access to leaders across the firm, many of whom will later influence and make decisions on partnership elevation. One of the keys to the success of the Triad Mentoring Program is the pairing of a mentor and a sponsor. There is a commonly understood difference in the roles—in sum, a mentor “advises” and a sponsor “advocates.” Sponsors are typically senior level leaders or supervisors invested in the protégé’s advancement and success. In the law firm environment, sponsors help drive the career vision, provide access to work streams and client opportunities, champion visibility, and use their platform to create opportunities. This in turn gives the mentee/protégé attorneys an opportunity to increase their profile and improve their ability to generate revenue.
  • Understand the business case for diversity. As evidenced by the open letter published regarding the diversity gap at large law firms, clients are increasingly demanding that their outside counsel reflect the diverse nature of the legal community and population at large. These clients recognize that a diverse team often leads to better, more creative solutions for their businesses. Firms looking to attract new clients and retain and grow existing clients will be best served by including women and other diverse attorneys in their client presentations, pitches, and teams. And creating such opportunities for women will increase their potential to attract and grow business, which is not only critical to partnership and compensation decisions but also vital to a firm’s financial health.
  • It’s not just about partnership. While firms need to foster an environment that provides opportunities for women to be promoted to partner, firms should also focus on creating and facilitating opportunities for women to hold leadership positions. Women in leadership roles are vastly underrepresented at most firms—among those AmLaw 200 firms responding to NAWL’s 2018 survey, just 20–25 percent of governance roles, managing partners, and practice group leaders were women, on average. Firm leaders are well advised to take an intentional and proactive approach to succession planning to ensure that junior women see that they not only can become partner but also can lead client teams, affinity groups, and practice groups. Succession planning should include diversity as a consideration for next-in-line leaders, and firm leadership should drive these plans and highlight diversity as a key element in decision making. Again, savvy clients are not only looking to the diversity of the attorney team providing client service; they are also looking at firms’ leadership structures. Being able to tout a diverse leadership can lead to tangible benefits when promoting the firm to prospective clients.

What Women Can Do to Promote Themselves

In addition to steps firms can consider taking to improve diversity of partners and firm leaders, female attorneys also have a role to play in shaping their own opportunities:

  • Advocate for yourself. Many studies have shown that women often are hesitant to self-advocate, for fear of “bragging.” Rather than confidently touting their accomplishments, some women will instead focus nearly exclusively on the positive results of “the team.” While giving credit where it is due and supporting others is important—more on that below—women attorneys should make sure they are highlighting their contributions not just in the context of the “team effort” but as stand-alone achievements. This is particularly important when it comes to highlighting business development efforts.
  • Seize client- or prospect-focused tasks and roles. Focus on client- or prospect-facing roles. These are the roles that will provide the opportunity for women to generate new client relationships or expand existing relationships. Again, business generation acumen is a key factor in partnership elevation decisions, so women should pursue firm roles that will best position them to generate revenue, rather than taking on what have been referred to as “housekeeping”-type roles—tasks such as purely administrative or planning roles, or tasks that help the law firm or practice area run more smoothly without any opportunity to interface with the market, clients, or prospects.
  • Cross-sell. Even if a woman or diverse attorney is not an expert in a particular field, chances are one of his or her colleagues is. Attorneys should make sure to be knowledgeable about their firms’ various areas of expertise, so that when a potential or existing client has a unique legal issue, the outside attorney can still bring in the client relationship by promoting her colleagues’ expertise—and if the colleague is a woman or diverse, even better. Pitching business based on both an attorney’s individual practice area  colleagues’ different practice areas broadens the ability to build a book of business, which is critical to partnership and compensation decisions.
  • Network authentically. Historically, client development occurred in places dominated by white males, like the golf course, at a ballgame, or over scotch and cigars. Certainly, many women enjoy these activities and continue to develop business this way, but not surprisingly, some women were left out of such networking opportunities. But as in-house legal departments become more diverse, many of those making hiring decisions—men and women—are happy to network in new environments. Women looking to grow their business should find ways to develop their networks authentically. Of course, this is not to say that women can’t develop business by bringing potential clients to sporting events or the like—for many women, these activities are still a fun and relaxing way to get to know their potential business prospects. But the key is to find what is authentic, manageable, and fun. Bringing in business in an environment that works for you is much more likely than in one that feels foreign.
  • Request credit as appropriate. The ability to generate business is, quite obviously, a critical component of whether an attorney will be promoted to partner, and it plays a critical role in compensation after elevation. Women should respectfully advocate for appropriate credit within their firm’s credit systems for successful client pitches and contributions to expanding an existing client relationship. While attorneys of all backgrounds need to be wary of getting a reputation for having “sharp elbows,” women can and should request appropriate credit allocation when their efforts contributed to bringing in or expanding business. Of course, the inherent power dynamics that accompany credit disputes can make such discussions difficult to navigate, so firms must provide support for these discussions and encourage attorneys to involve the appropriate firm leaders.
  • Make the ask. In that same vein, women should not be afraid to ask their prospective and existing clients for business (or more business). This may be difficult for some, but most clients or potential clients will respect and understand the ask. At worst, they will say “no,” but they might just say “not now” or “yes.” You don’t know the answer until you ask!
  • Go for the stretch. An infamous internal Hewlett Packard report cited in Lean In and The Confidence Code revealed that women will often wait until they have met nearly 100 percent of the eligibility criteria to apply for a role, whereas men often apply when they have met a mere 60 percent of the criteria. In fact, research in the Harvard Business Review showed that women were nearly twice as likely as men to say that they decided not to apply for a job because they were “following the rules” about who should apply. If women want to even the playing field, they need to throw their hats into the ring along with their male counterparts even when they meet less than 100 percent of eligibility criteria. While, of course, lawyers need to know their experience limits, women should not hesitate to stretch and ask for the assignment, the pitch opportunity, or the opportunity to put themselves up for partner.
  • Promote other women and diverse attorneys. We would be remiss if we did not encourage women attorneys to help each other and other underrepresented attorneys. One way to do this is “amplification,” a strategy used by women in the Obama administration to combat the experience of having their ideas overlooked. If a woman’s idea was not acknowledged, other women would repeat it and give their colleague credit for the idea. Women in law firms can and should consider employing this technique to ensure their contributions are being recognized and valued.

    And while this article has focused on gender disparities, we should not forget to call out all biases when we see them and support our colleagues who are women and men of color or LGBTQ+ or who have disabilities or come from other marginalized communities.

As the headlines show, while the legal industry has made progress in gender parity, more progress is needed. We hope that these tips can help move the needle in the right direction, allowing women to thrive even more at law firms—and firms to benefit as a result.

Dawn Mertineit and Katherine E. Perrelli are partners in the litigation department of Seyfarth Shaw LLP. 

Copyright © 2019, American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association, the Section of Litigation, this committee, or the employer(s) of the author(s).