Women on Top: The Woman's Guide to Leadership and Power in Law Firms
When I finished law school and started law practice more than three decades ago, women were 30% of all new lawyers. My women colleagues and I assumed that our presence in the profession in such high numbers would lead to a huge change in the culture and composition of law firm leadership. We knew it would be a hard climb, but we expected that before too long, we would push the barriers aside and clear the way to the top for ourselves and the women who followed us. Women lawyers have made great strides at the entry level ever since that time, some women have become influential leaders and highly successful rainmakers, and recent surveys show that women are moving into partnership at increasing rates in many firms. But after all these years, women who rise to the top of law firms remain the exception rather than the rule, and the number of women partners and leaders remains woefully small: nationwide, women still represent only 16% of equity partners, 6% of top leadership positions, and less than 1% of the most highly compensated partners. At this rate, estimates Catalyst, women will not achieve parity in law firm leadership until 2086.
Even women who achieve significant career success continue to face disproportionate barriers and hostile treatment that frustrate their leadership aspirations. A recent survey of 700 women partners found that 8% of women partners were de-equitized last year. More significantly, 55% of these women partners reported they were occasionally or frequently denied their fair share of origination credit, two-thirds were uncomfortable with appealing their compensation decisions, and 30% were subjected to intimidation, threats and bullying when they did express disagreement.
These survey responses reflect an appalling work environment that perpetuates gender imbalance and is no longer tolerable. Law firms have attracted large numbers of enormously talented women, but most women have not achieved their potential in law firm settings. Instead, they have left for other work environments that have benefited from their abilities or they have left the workforce. What a waste! How can law firms justify the economic, institutional and social expense of this huge loss of talent?
When money flowed freely, some firms deluded themselves into thinking that losing women lawyers didn’t matter; but today they are starting to feel the consequences of this loss acutely. Clients expect more diverse legal teams and firms desperately need capable leaders – many of whom are women. But law firms have become so unappealing that many women wonder why they should bother when the basic issues remain the same: gender bias, institutional rigidity, and a career model that is incompatible with women’s lives and priorities. Countless books, studies and conferences have explained what law firms need to do to create a work environment where women are likely to remain, thrive and succeed side by side with men. But few law firms have demonstrated the will and determination to make the fundamental institutional and cultural changes this would require.
The time is ripe for women to take the lead and spearhead these changes - for themselves and for the women and men who follow them. The entire profession is undergoing revolutionary change and market forces are driving law firms to rethink entirely the way they do business. Women are uniquely situated to be the agents of change. One advantage is that women have many of the characteristics that leaders will need in this rapidly changing profession. Another is that change is not as threatening to women because they have less invested in the current system, which has denied them power and kept them out of leadership. In fact, many women see what many men do not – that these changes may be liberating for lawyers, freeing them from the yoke of the billable hour, bringing greater flexibility to their lives, and allowing them to use collaborative skills and talents that the current system has suppressed.
My new book, Women on Top: The Woman’s Guide to Leadership and Power in Law Firms, demystifies for women the process of achieving law firm leadership. It emphasizes the importance of women taking control of their careers – and shows them how to do it. It tells women why they should seek leadership and power, how they can do it, and what they can do once they have it. The overall purpose is to create better, gender balanced law firms where women and men can achieve greatness together.
Much of my book relies on interviews I conducted with more than 60 women leaders in cities throughout the United States, and in London, Sydney and Hong Kong. The women I interviewed were highly diverse in terms of age, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, family status, firm size, practice area and leadership roles. These were women who succeeded in many different ways and whose experiences prove that leadership is attainable when you are clear about what you want, know how to go after it, and recognize and make the most of opportunities that come your way.
The book is divided into three parts. The first part looks at the unique leadership challenges that women face and men do not. Part 2 studies leadership within the context of law firms and discusses how law firm structure, culture and politics, as well as lawyers’ personalities and attitudes create special challenges for all law firm leaders but especially for women. Both parts offer advice on techniques and strategies for succeeding in spite of these obstacles.
The last part of the book deals with the personal aspects of leadership and gives women a framework for becoming successful leaders. It describes how women can achieve their career aspirations, exercise influence in their firms, and find meaning and satisfaction as law firm leaders. Part 3 sets out six critical areas that women must master in order to attain leadership and power and use both effectively. To frame the discussion, I use the acronym ASPIRE:
It is my hope that Women on Top will inspire and equip women to become the leaders they want to be, and that men who read it will also be moved to help women transform law firms into more equitable and balanced work environments.
Women on Top is being published as part of a Law Firm Economics and Management Series. The publisher, Thomson Reuters, is offering readers of Management Solutions a discount of 25% off the retail price. Books will be available mid-June. To pre-order your copy at the discounted price, click here.
If your law firm wants to create the institutional, political and cultural conditions required for more women to advance into leadership, I would be glad to assist you. I can:
To learn more, call (510-339-6883) or email me.
CLE opportunity – Elimination of Bias
I was recently interviewed by Susan Kostal for American Lawyer Media on the issues, advice and strategies presented in my book. The program, like the book, is called Women on Top and will be available for viewing online in mid-June. It qualifies for one hour of CLE credit in the elimination of bias category in many states. For more information, go to www.clecenter.com or contact Sarah Orye, Director of LAW.com CLE Center at 212-457-7910.
Law firms need new types of leaders to meet the transformative changes now taking place in the legal industry. Many qualities of effective leadership will endure regardless of these changes. Leaders will always need to demonstrate integrity, build trust, communicate vision, develop talent, and focus on results. But dealing with the forces driving change in law firms today and tomorrow will require leaders with abilities that law firms have not valued in the past.
In choosing leaders, firms tend to focus on the traits of successful past and present leaders - those who define and embody the status quo. Those choices may feel safe, but the leadership that got your firm where it is today won’t necessarily get it where it wants to be tomorrow. A dynamic business strategy, especially in a turbulent market, must look ahead to where the firm is going in the future. To paraphrase hockey great Bobby Orr, law firm leaders have to look where the puck is going to be. The unheralded leadership competencies needed to steer the firm in new directions include an ability to focus on process; an ability to build and lead collaborative teams and alliances; and the appreciation of diversity in a broader, global context.
Ability to focus on process:
Clients today seek maximum value for their legal expenditures. They want high quality services that are predictable, efficient and at the lowest possible cost. One of the responses to these client demands has been the rise of legal process outsourcers, or LPOs. LPOs are companies and professional firms with innovative delivery models that reflect a new way of thinking about how legal work should be done and who should do it. Some LPOs are law firm affiliates but most are independent entities.
The key word in legal process outsourcing is “process.” Most lawyers believe that their work is so complex that it cannot be reduced to a series of tasks or steps. But that’s exactly what LPOs are doing. They break down legal work into a series of discrete tasks and then find the most streamlined and cost-efficient way to staff and complete each one. They employ project management techniques to set budgets and timelines, manage risk, and measure outcomes. The intent is not to eliminate lawyers, but to have high-priced, highly experienced lawyers do what only they can do – provide expert analysis, reasoned judgment, advocacy and other high level skills – and to distribute all other work to service providers who are positioned to provide the work most cost-effectively.
LPOs are vigorously competing against law firms for legal work. When they first appeared, LPOs provided services like document processing and basic legal research. Today they are doing increasingly more sophisticated and complex legal work. When outside investment in law firms is permitted in the UK starting next year, LPOs are expected to attract investors who see the potential profitability of these new process-oriented services. With such infusions of capital, LPOs will be able to hire top legal and managerial talent and invest in innovative approaches and systems that will reduce costs even more. And they will be able to expand their reach across the globe. The result will be that client expectations will change about how law firms operate, what they should deliver, and what they can charge.
Most law firm leaders today focus more on the substantive quality and quantity of work being done than on the systems and processes used to produce and deliver it. But clients and LPOs will place far more weight on process in the years ahead, and law firm leaders will have to take LPOs and other alternative practice models into account when devising strategies to compete against these new players. This means understanding how work can be disaggregated, reorganized and reallocated; applying project management techniques; and matching required competence levels with the most cost-effective providers. (See the previous issue of Management Solutions for one firm’s approach.) Firms will have to develop strategies that focus on what they will offer to clients directly because it is unique and justifies their fees, and how they will cover other aspects of client service by retaining, managing, creating, and/or collaborating with LPOs and other new types of service providers.
Ability to build and lead collaborative teams and alliances
Effective law firm leaders will need to be far more collaborative than they are accustomed to. They are used to operating in a competitive, adversarial environment. They tend to be more individualistic than team oriented and enjoy being in charge of client teams. But in a world where a large part of a client’s work may be outsourced, and where clients expect a group of firms to jointly develop strategy, work cooperatively, and share work product, the ability to manage complex webs of relationships and alliances will become increasingly important.
In the past, an attorney-client relationship involved just the client and the law firm it retained. Today, that relationship may include various LPOs, online and virtual service providers, and multiple law firms, including firms that are otherwise competitors. In England today, some clients are retaining high-end London firms and lower cost regional firms who will share cases, deals and projects; others are placing their in-house lawyers inside law firms, fully integrating both into the client’s legal business. One noteworthy example of this new approach is mining giant Rio Tinto, which has sent a substantial portion of its legal work to one LPO, CPA Global. CPA Global lawyers in India support the work of in-house lawyers, and outside law firms engaged by Rio Tinto are expected to use CPA Global lawyers in India and elsewhere for work that can be done by lower cost lawyers. As these complicated arrangements become more common, it will become more and more critical for leaders to be able to build and manage positive and productive multilateral relationships.
The skills this requires go beyond the kind of team leadership lawyers now demonstrate on teams within their firms. It is hard enough trying to get one’s own partners to perform as the leader wants. When a leader is not in the same firm as other team members, it may be even harder to direct or influence what and how work is done. In the future, leaders will need to employ styles that are more participative rather than directive; they will need to use coaching techniques, ask for input and share more information. They will need to be able to work with (and possibly take direction from) project managers who may be employed by the client or by another firm, and who may be process experts but not lawyers. This will require leaders to know how to “lead from the middle,” which in turn will require considerable patience and tact.
Appreciation of diversity in a broad and global context.
Law firms have to redefine diversity as they work in an increasingly global business environment. Markets are becoming ever more connected and legal work can be done anywhere in the world, whether the firm has a physical presence or not. To function in an international arena, law firm leaders will have to recognize the validity and benefit of diverse perspectives and acknowledge that different viewpoints are vital and desirable for fuller understanding of issues, people and clients, and to produce better results. They will have to appreciate not just the legal implications of globalization for their clients, but the regulatory, economic, cultural and political ramifications for their own firms. They will need an expanded vision of their markets and a greater sensitivity to unfamiliar work values and business practices. As discussed in an earlier issue of Management Solutions, leaders who operate in a global context need to be culturally competent.
This new way of thinking requires a broader definition of diversity, especially when it comes to talent development and retention. As industries and clients become more diverse, they expect greater diversity in their law firms’ workforce. Most US firms view diversity in terms of particular categories, such as race and gender, but cultural diversity embraces far more categories and more significantly, a different state of mind. To be effective in leading and developing talent in a global context, leaders will have to be flexible, adaptable and willing to challenge their accepted beliefs. They will need to understand differences in cultural values and social norms that impact their ability to develop and retain legal talent, whether those lawyers are located in US offices or abroad. They will need a variety of leadership styles and mentoring techniques in order to engage and motivate a globally diverse array of lawyers. Strategies and rewards that are effective in motivating American lawyers may be ineffective or even offensive to lawyers in other cultures; practices that please lawyers in the US may be counterproductive to firm lawyers in other countries.
Some current and rising leaders may have these leadership traits while others will need to learn them. When seeking ways to develop law firm leaders, firms should not overlook or undervalue GenX and GenY lawyers as edifying resources. While it is unusual for law firm leaders to seek guidance or role models among younger, less experienced lawyers, junior partners and even associates have a lot to offer more senior lawyers with respect to these three leadership abilities. Young lawyers tend to ask tough questions and raise challenges to accepted work methods and values, which can lead to process innovation. They have grown up in an education system and a world that stress teamwork and diversity so collaboration is natural for them. They are globally connected through technology, which practically defines their lives. Their interest in flexibility makes them receptive to new ways of working in a world without boundaries. And because they are at early stages of their careers, junior lawyers have less to un-learn than the established leaders of their firms. Young lawyers may have a lot to learn about leadership, but they are potentially a source of knowledge and ideas that they can impart to leaders about these aspects of leadership.
Three specialized leadership programs
Over the next two months, I will be organizing three programs that emphasize leadership. If you would like information about how you or your firm can participate in any of them, please contact me.
In the Press
A special edition of the Daily Journal included an interview with me and featured a group that I run, the Women Managing Partners Roundtable. This Roundtable consists of women managing partners in firms in the Bay Area and Los Angeles. The group meets monthly to discuss various issues involved in managing and leading law firms. Sara Randazzo, “A Roundtable of Their Own,” http://www.dailyjournal.com, March 17, 2010.
I was also quoted in another Daily Journal article, “Jockeying for Power: Women still short of seats in key law firm roles,” May 12, 2010.