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May 20, 2013 Practice Points

Women's Initiatives Creating Change

By Stefanie Wayco

For many reasons, women in law firms are good for the law firm’s business—not just in a legal capacity at the firm, but in leadership positions within the firm’s upper management. Women may be more in tune with certain clients and certain areas of the law. A firm’s lawyers reflect the culture of the firm. What does it say to clients or potential clients when there are few women at the top? More and more frequently, especially at the institutional client level, women and diversity within law firms are becoming an important deciding factor in their selection of a law firm.

Today, women’s initiatives in law firms are growing. These initiatives are intended to provide a forum for women to discuss women’s issues in law firms, career advancement, and navigating the client relationship in what is a predominately male dominated profession. Upper management in law firms typically supports these efforts, but many believe that more work needs to be done with initiatives to advance more women to the top and equalize pay between male and female lawyers, especially at the equity partner level.

Statistics for women in the field of law are striking. For decades, women have represented more than half of law graduates. According to a report by the National Association of Women Lawyers Foundation, one of every two associates in a law firm is a woman. Despite these numbers, women continue to be underrepresented at the top. Women represent only one out of seven equity partners and 15 percent of equity partners at the nation’s top 200 law firms. Of this noticeably small percentage of women at the top, even fewer are in management or hold executive positions on law firm committees.

These statistics depict a legal field saturated by women in the middle ranks. Women attorneys dominate the staff attorney ranks with few rising to the top posts in law firms. Despite the efforts of law firms to support women’s initiatives and female attorneys’ own efforts to make changes across all levels, the statistics remain disproportionately low.

While law firms are typically more than willing to invest resources, time, and people, there appears to be a disconnect between women’s initiatives and substantive changes that advance women to senior positions within firms and equalize the pay gap. What is lacking? Where is the disconnect? What makes the initiatives work? What needs to be done?

It is unlikely that law firms invest in women’s initiatives simply to check off a “women’s initiative” box; more likely, there is a disconnect with what to do with the initiative once it is in place. Women’s initiatives must have the capability to impact the firm both internally and externally. Women’s initiatives require focus not only on issues that affect women, such as pay equality, maternity leave, part-time work, and associated issues, but they need to also focus on the law firm and how to best advance the firm’s own strategic objectives. Informal lunches and conferences with the firm’s women are simply not enough to gain momentum for a successful women’s initiative. Women’s initiatives must tap directly into the top decision makers at the firm. For the best results, a firm’s top management must foster and facilitate the program creating a support network.

In turn, women’s initiatives will facilitate opportunities for business development within the firm. Women’s initiatives must include in their training and discussion sessions a plan for business development. Thus, advancing the law firm’s goals through the women’s initiative will also advance the initiative’s goals. Women’s initiatives should leverage those in top management to work with women at all levels in the firm to “lean in.”

Women’s initiatives and women’s career advancement are not solely upper management’s responsibility to facilitate. For success, and to “get a seat at the table,” women in the firm must take responsibility, as Sheryl Sandberg says in her book Lean In. At the end of the day, law firms have a responsibility to create an environment where women’s initiatives have the opportunity and capability to make a difference. Ultimately, women lawyers must take responsibility for their own success. Women must demonstrate their commitment to success by stepping into significant roles within their firms, forging a path to leadership, and developing their career path to the top from the very beginning. For women’s initiatives to be successful, everyone is responsible for making a change.

Keywords: woman advocate, litigation, creating change

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