The business case for women's initiatives is clear: women make up so large a percentage of the best legal talent that law firms cannot afford to lose or waste such valuable resources. Consulting companies like Deloitte & Touche have shown that initiatives intended to retain and promote women have tangible, measurable benefits for the entire firm. Deloitte increased the number of women partners, principals and directors from 97 in 1993 to 617 in 2003; it has had the highest percentage of women in these positions of the Big Four consulting firms every year since 1997, and was the first to have a woman board chair. Because its initiative led to practices and policies that benefited all employees, it also increased retention and satisfaction levels throughout the firm. Deloitte attributes its 1992 - 2003 increase in annual revenues from $1.93 billion to $5.93 billion in large part to increased workforce satisfaction, productivity, and commitment resulting from its Women's Initiative. (For information about the Women's Initiative at Deloitte, see http://www.deloitte.com/dtt/article/0,1002,sid%253D2261%2526cid%253D47902,00.html).
A successful women's initiative also advances law firm diversity. Diversity efforts are being driven both by firms' own good intentions and increasingly, by corporate clients' demands that the law firms representing them demonstrate a commitment to diversity, including gender diversity. In addition, more and more women are business owners, business leaders, and decision-makers who expect to see women lawyers in the law firms they hire. In this market environment, having strong, prominent women partners and leaders makes a law firm stand out - and attract good clients.
The absence of women at the top is in large part due to a male-dominated culture and work structure. While many of the difficulties of law practice are the same for men and women, women face unique obstacles, including sexual stereotypes, alienation in a masculine work environment, and childbearing issues. Women lawyers are increasingly knocking down barriers to advancement, but they are also leaving practice, dissatisfied by what they have to sacrifice to achieve success - or by what success brings when they reach the top. Capable and ambitious young women see few role models who validate the rewards of persevering toward partnership. They find little motivation to remain in an environment they find inhospitable, insensitive, and unfair to women.
Women's initiatives help counter these conditions. They help women develop the skills, strategies, clients, and power base to rise in the law firm and the profession. They create a sense of community and mutual support that make women feel committed to each other and to the firm. And at the same time, they can lead to cultural and institutional changes that make the work environment more conducive to the success of all who work there.
Women's initiatives can take many forms. Some are national or even global in scope, while others focus on a small group in a single office; some initiatives focus on changing firm culture while others concentrate on accomplishing one or two discrete objectives. Whatever shape it takes, there are some important points to keep in mind when instituting a women's initiative.
Articulate the vision and goals of the initiative. The purpose and goals of the initiative must be clear. A clear vision statement establishes the business case, inspires support, and motivates participants. Clearly stated goals allow selection of appropriate activities and measurement of the initiative's results.
When setting goals, it is first necessary to select the areas on which the initiative will focus. The following areas are common targets of women's initiatives in law firms:
Ensure ongoing administrative and leadership support. A one-time event that features women is not a women's initiative. An initiative requires ongoing attention, direction, and activities. It also requires substantial support, especially from firm leaders at every level and from marketing, recruiting, and professional development personnel. Multi-office firms often have a coordinating committee for the firm's overall women's initiative, with on-site committees in individual offices. These committees may function independently and/or according to a central game plan. Every committee should meet regularly, and if a firm has committees in more than one office, the committees should also communicate. It is also important to build and maintain enthusiasm for the initiative, and to create a pool of current and future leaders who will ensure its continuity.
Publicize the Women's Initiative. If the firm is truly behind the initiative, it should show pride in it. Some firms publish brochures, issue press releases, and try to maximize media exposure for their women's initiative. Many tout their initiative on their website. One firm that does this is Day, Berry and Howard LLP, which has a link on its home page to a video clip about its "Women Working Together" program. (http://www.dbh.com) Firms also publicize their initiatives and promote their women lawyers internally, e.g., by regularly featuring women in firm newsletters or recommending women for staffing new client matters. The marketing department can assist in building a "brand" for the women's initiative, so that the initiative becomes associated with high-quality, well-respected programming and activities.
Win over dissenters. Resistance to a women's initiative should be tackled at the outset. Many men resent what they perceive as "favoritism," and many women see more harm than good in singling women out in any way. This is why it is important to be clear that the purpose of the initiative is to provide resources, skills, and support that will ensure equitable treatment and increase women lawyers' success in the firm and the profession. It is not to elevate women at the expense of men or by seeking special treatment for women.
An important by-product of a women's initiative is that the firm can become a better place to work for women and men. For instance, if one focus of the initiative is to create more accommodating work-life policies, there is no reason to restrict policies such as flexible scheduling, parenting leave, or non-traditional career tracks to women. Similarly, many programs and events sponsored by a women's initiative (e.g., educational events, speakers on topics of interest to all lawyers, affinity groups for new parents) should be open to the firm's men. If the women's initiative sponsors an event solely for women, encourage men in the firm to invite their women clients to the event. You can also hold a pre-event networking period or reception where men can greet their women clients before the main program.
Monitor results and maintain accountability. Ongoing support for any initiative requires proof of its value. Quantify goal outcomes to the extent possible (e.g., number of women becoming partners, increase in business brought in by women). It is not always easy to prove cause and effect, especially in the short run. But over a period of months and years, the changes promoted by the initiative should become discernible.
To maintain accountability, the firm, as well as each department or practice group, should include initiative-related goals, measures, and results in every annual business plan. In addition, some firms use external resources to hold the firm accountable. Vinson & Elkins LLP has an outside Advisory Board, chaired by the General Counsel of one of the firm's major clients, to provide broader perspective and guidance, and to monitor the firm's progress toward achieving the women's initiative goals they have laid out. (http://www.vinson-elkins.com/overview/overview_pages.asp?page_name=Women's%20Initiative)
Examples of activities supported by women's initiatives. Women's initiatives (and women's groups in firms without formal initiatives) sponsor an endless variety of activities and events. Here are a few examples:
Poor results on associate satisfaction surveys are frequently wake-up calls for law firms. Results published by American Lawyer, Vault, or other companies may lead to a decline in firm morale and difficulties in recruiting and retention. Most firms act quickly to counteract negative survey results, but unfortunately, the measures they take often fail to address the underlying problems revealed by the survey.
That was the case with a firm that consulted me following the results of a national survey in which they scored near the bottom of 100 surveyed firms. The associates in the firm who responded to the survey complained about:
The firm was planning to institute several steps to address associates' concerns and asked for my advice before implementation. Two of those steps were establishment of an Associates Committee and initiation of a formal Mentoring Program. Both were intended to address the associates' criticisms and to promote better communication between associates and firm management. But while these were sensible measures, the process that led to their creation was seriously flawed by management's restrictive approach.
The process was flawed in that firm management had not communicated with partners or associates about the Associates Committee or the Mentoring Program, and consequently failed to generate buy-in or support for either measure. When I spoke with lawyers in the firm, I learned that many partners resented associates' criticism in the survey, saw no reason why associates should have the information they wanted, and claimed to be too busy to spend time mentoring associates. For their part, associates felt the Associates Committee and Mentoring Program were just half-hearted reactions to the survey and would make no real difference. By not including associates in the planning process, management reinforced their complaints. As a result, instead of building trust between associates and partners, the firm's efforts was further eroding what little trust there was.
My message to the firm was clear: Trust had to be restored quickly, and the best way to do this was through open and widespread communication. A series of "town hall meetings" was held in which the Managing Partner, Management Committee, Executive Director, and practice group leaders met with all lawyers who wanted to discuss these issues. Each meeting had a primary focus, but participants could also raise other issues. The membership and charter of the Associates Committee was the focus of one meeting; the purpose and design of a Mentoring Program was the focus of two meetings. Outcomes of the town hall meetings included initiation of semi-annual "state of the firm" reports (including some financial data) to associates by the Managing Partner; election of representatives to the Associates Committee; postponement of a formal mentoring program pending further study; training in supervision skills for all lawyers; and several office-sponsored events for small groups of associates and partners that promoted informal interaction and communication. Gradually, these efforts began to improve partner-associate relations and raised expectations that the next associate survey would show better results.
Firms with mentoring programs that provide assigned mentors for all associates should not assume that all associates have the same mentoring needs. In the early years of practice, associates usually want to focus on developing solid work habits and competencies as practicing lawyers. After 2-3 years in practice, it becomes important for them to learn more about managing clients and supervising others. After a few more years, leadership and business development move to the forefront. Most firms design their programs to address the needs of junior associates. For experienced associates, however, a different approach is needed. Those in charge of the mentoring program should acknowledge and plan for the different needs of experienced associates when designing the program, matching mentors and mentees, crafting training programs, and setting expectations for mentor-mentee pairs. Ask mid-level and senior associates to identify some personal goals or areas for development and to name mentors with whom they would like to work. Target training to help mentors and experienced associates work on these goals or areas, and suggest activities suitable to meet these associates' development needs.
VIP Mentors is a unique mentoring organization that provides mentors to parolees when they leave prison and return to the community. It was founded in 1972 with a grant from the American Bar Association and is now active in 13 counties throughout California. It pairs parolees with lawyers who volunteer to serve as mentors. The purpose of this mentoring program is to help parolees build a better future for themselves, which in turn leads to better and safer communities. Mentors serve as "guides, advisors, friends and role models for parolees as they struggle to turn their lives around." Mentors do not provide legal representation or money to parolees. VIP Mentors says that parolees in its program "consistently attain success rates of more than 70%, measured in terms of living crime-free, meeting educational goals, stable jobs and improved family relationships." And while on average, 41% of California parolees violate their parole and return to custody within a year, only 6% of the parolees with VIP mentors were re-incarcerated last year. For more information about this impressive program, see http://vipmentors.org/default.html.
The 2005 NALP/ALI-ABA Professional Development Institute will be held on December 1-2, 2005, at the Westin Grand Hotel in Washington, DC. The Institute is intended for individuals involved in all aspects of lawyer training and professional development. I will be participating in a panel entitled, "Here You Are; Where Are You Going,?" which will discuss careers in the field of law firm professional development. Additional information and registration forms can be found at www.nalp.org.
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