Issue 30, Fall 2010

The more I work with women partners, the more I realize that law firms cannot achieve gender balance until they fundamentally change the way they make decisions about partner compensation, business opportunities, leadership preparation and selection, and client succession.  In this edition of Management Solutions, I explain why – and how - the men who now control law firms must take more responsibility for changing these processes. 

This issue highlights two large law firms that stand out in their commitment to promoting diversity.  One firm has women and minority lawyers in 5 of its top 7 leadership positions.  The other firm has established an initiative that holds partners, practice groups and firm management accountable for increasing lawyer diversity.

Also discussed in this issue are the winners of The College of Law Practice Management’s 2010 InnovAction Awards. 

Contents of this Issue

Women's Advancement Requires A Few Good Men

How Two Firms Are Proving Their Commitment to Diversity

2010 InnovAction Awards

PD Roundtable for Global Law Firms

Upcoming Speaking Engagements

Recent Publications


Women on Top: The Woman’s Guide to Leadership and Power in Law Firms

(Thomson Reuters 2010)
It is gratifying to hear from people who have read my new book and find its lessons valuable.  One reviewer stated: “This book is a reference book of unmatched quality. This book is a “must read” for both men and women in law who think they have it right when it comes to leadership generally and more specifically leadership for women in law.” Read the rest of this review.

For more information, and to order your copy:
West (Thompson Reuters)

I am pleased to offer other new learning resources about women and leadership, including an online course that offers CLE credit in the elimination of gender bias, a podcast about leadership, and Women on Top presentations, workshops and seminars. 


The 2011 Hastings Leadership Academy for Women will take place July 20-23, 2011, at University of California Hastings College of Law in San Francisco. 


Global Professional Development Roundtable

The Professional Development Roundtable for Global Law Firms is now accepting new members for 2011.  Information about membership qualifications and registration is provided below

Women's Advancement Requires A Few Good Men

Women’s advancement into law firm leadership requires a few good men.  Women lawyers have the ability and ambition they need to succeed.  What they do not have is access to power.  In most law firms, men have almost total control over firm clients and leadership positions.  There are too few women with enough influence to effectuate the changes necessary to allow women to advance to leadership and power in law firms on an equal footing with men.

Many women do reach the top in law firms, but in very small numbers compared to men. A 2008 study of University of Michigan Law School graduates found that women who practiced in a firm for five or more years were 13 percent less likely than men to make partner, even if their qualifications were equal and regardless of whether they had children. According to a September 2010 survey by the American Lawyer, not one AmLaw 100 law firm has more than 25% women equity partners, even though women have been about half of all new lawyers for 20 years. Catalyst estimates that at the current rate of progress, women will achieve parity with men in 2086.

My new book, Women on Top, stresses the importance of women taking the initiative, asserting their personal power and supporting each other to move into leadership positions.  But women cannot do it alone.  Large numbers of women have been trying to break into partnership and leadership for more than 30 years, but two critical factors have kept those goals out of reach for most of them. 

One factor is that women have almost no influence or power over decisions that impact law firm business strategy, management or culture.  One-third of all lawyers are women.  Yet according to the 2009 NAWL survey on retention and promotion of women in large law firms, men hold 84% of equity partnerships and 94% of top leadership positions, they constitute 85% of the highest governing committees, and they are 99% of the most highly compensated lawyers.  This monolithic power structure maintains a system that suits the lives, work styles and priorities of men but not of women. 

The second factor, closely related to the first, is that ambitious women who try to break into law firm leadership are often punished for their efforts.  Law firms are extremely harsh work environments for all lawyers, regardless of gender, but it is simply much harder for women than for men to succeed in them.  Women have all the burdens that men face plus additional obstacles and challenges that befall only women: disproportionate family obligations, exclusion from business and leadership opportunities, and gender stereotyping that creates negative assumptions about their competence and commitment.  Pervasive but hidden gender bias penalizes women when they try to advocate for their interests (“she’s grasping”), become mothers (“she’s less committed”) or challenge unfair treatment (“she’s difficult to work with”). 

If women only had to deal with the stresses of law practice, they would succeed and advance at the same rate as men.  They certainly have no less intelligence and they begin with the same drive to succeed.  But having to deal with these added pressures and personal insults day after day leads to incessant frustration and early burnout.  When capable, ambitious women have more conducive options, why would they stay where they are?  Instead, they leave for government or corporate positions, start their own firms, or take time out.

Some intrepid women remain in their firms, determined to make it work – and some succeed.  But three recent studies confirm that no matter how hard women try, they come up against barriers that for most women remain insurmountable.   

  • Marina Angel, Eun-Young Whang, Rajiv D. Banker and Joseph Lopez, “Statistical Evidence on the Gender Gap in Law Firm Partner Compensation” (September 9, 2010).  This study of partner compensation from 2002 to 2007 at AmLaw 200 law firms determined that equity and non-equity women partners “are paid less despite the fact that they are not less productive than men partners in generating RPL [revenue per lawyer] for their firms."  In fact, the researchers found that “women partners outperform their men counterparts.” Their analysis concludes that, “This gender disparity cannot be explained by lower productivity of women partners.  It is more appropriately attributed to discriminatory practices under both disparate treatment and disparate impact analyses." 
  • Joan C. Williams and Veta T. Richardson, “New Millennium, Same Glass Ceiling: The Impact of Law Firm Compensation Systems on Women” (July 2010). This study of nearly 700 women law firm partners presents some disturbing findings about the many ways compensation systems adversely impact women partners.  It notes several negative factors that have been apparent for a long time, including the scarcity of women on compensation committees and the lack of transparency about how compensation is determined.  But it also documents many new and troubling findings, including these:
    • More than 80% of the women partners in firms that give origination credit reported they were occasionally or frequently denied their fair share of that credit.
    • When there was a dispute over origination credit, almost one-third of women were subjected to intimidation, threats and bullying.
    • Minority women were more likely to have disputes over origination credit and were more likely to be bullied. 
    • Firms did not provide women with equal opportunity to participate in client pitches, and when they were invited to participate in a pitch that was successful, women often did not receive a proportionate share of the origination credit or otherwise have their contribution recognized financially. 
  • Herminia Ibarra, Nancy M. Carver and Christine Silva, “Why Men Still Get More Promotions Than Women,” Harvard Business Review, September 2010.  (Summary available).  This study looked at the extent and impact of mentoring on more than 4000 high potential women and men with MBA degrees.  The researchers looked not just at mentorship but also at sponsorship. Sponsors (in my book, I refer to them as “champions”) do more than other mentors; they have influence in the organization and they use it to advocate on behalf of their mentees.  They identify and help mentees plan new career moves, help them develop strategies to move up into new positions, and publicly endorse them.  This study found that women had more mentors but were promoted less often than men because mentors actively sponsored men for promotions far more often than they sponsored women.  Both women and men get valuable career advice from mentors, but without sponsorship, mentoring does not provide the same career benefits for women that it does for men.

These studies show that institutional practices and ingrained gender bias prevent most women from reaching the top.  No matter how hard women try, no matter how brilliant and capable they are as lawyers, they come up against these barriers – and men do not.  I do not mean to suggest there is a male conspiracy to keep women from achieving high levels of success.  To the contrary, many men have been active sponsors of individual women and effective supporters of efforts to promote women generally.  But these fundamental inequities exist on an institutional basis, and it will take the people with power – who are predominantly men – to bring about the institutional changes that are needed. 

Law firms operate in a business environment where women make up half the talent pool yet are under-valued, under-utilized and under-promoted.  For three decades, law firms have responded to this problem by sponsoring women’s initiatives and policies designed to help women operate in a male-dominated world.  While these initiatives are beneficial in many ways, they don’t tackle the main problem, which is that when the work environment is defined as a man’s world, even highly successful women remain outsiders.  Moreover, the world in which lawyers operate today is rapidly transforming, and the patterns and styles that have served men so well are being replaced by more holistic, collaborative and diverse approaches.  These are attributes that law firms need and that women have in abundance.  In this new world, women lawyers represent a critical resource and a rising force.  It is no longer women who must adapt; it is law firms that have to change in order to keep the talent they need. Forward thinking men realize this and will join with women to lead the way.

There are many ways your firm can take concrete steps to create a more equitable and gender balanced workplace. Here are five remedies for the issues raised by the studies cited above.  

  • Learn from women.  Many male partners believe that the choices, styles and career paths that worked for them should be equally effective for women.  They assume that women lawyers who do not make it to partnership or leadership lack drive or ability.  They perceive women’s different perspectives, styles, and family demands as inconveniences or flaws.  These partners need to appreciate the abilities, ambitions and challenges of women who aspire to leadership, as well as the added value women bring by their different approaches to practice, people, and business.  One effective way to do this is through reverse mentoring, where women serve as mentors to more senior partners, especially rainmakers and partners in management and leadership roles.
  • Educate the entire firm about gender bias.  Present workshops that heighten awareness of unconscious bias among women and men, and highlight techniques for conquering it.  Examine and reform institutional processes that allow gender bias to flourish.  These processes include performance evaluations, work assignments, partnership decision-making and compensation determination that reflect or incorporate gender stereotypes.
  • Increase transparency.  Establish fair, objective and transparent systems for allocating client opportunities, selecting leaders, and deciding compensation.  In doing so, make it a priority to increase the gender diversity on key decision-making committees and in management positions.  You can begin by creating processes to ensure that women are considered whenever lawyers undertake firm-sponsored business development activities; when partners make internal referrals of client work and opportunities to other partners; when the firm selects new leaders and managers; and when retiring partners transition their clients to other partners.  Track which lawyers are chosen to go on client pitches, who works on matters that result from those pitches, and who receives credit for the work.  Most importantly, hold partners accountable for adhering to these systems.  (For a more in-depth discussion of this recommendation, see my new article, “How Political Dynamics Undermine Gender Balance in Law Firm Leadership and What Your Firm Must Do About It”.)
  • Bring women into circles of power.  Give women access to influential men. Events and programs where women interact exclusively with other women are valuable and help women build networks that will become sources of business.  But most business today is still controlled by men.  So introduce women to businessmen and male in-house counsel; require partners to include women in pitches and business development activities; and help women and men become more comfortable doing business together.
  • Promote sponsors/champions for women. Make it the responsibility of practice group leaders, Management Committee members, or other influential partners to groom women for advancement to partnership and leadership, either informally or by pairing them up in a formal program.

These are just a few of the myriad strategies, programs and ideas that can be implemented by any firm to create a better workplace for women and men. Contact me if you would like to learn more.

How Two Firms Are Proving Their Commitment to Diversity

Morrison & Foerster, a global firm with more than 1000 lawyers, has had a longstanding commitment to diversity.  That commitment is now reflected in the composition of its leadership. Of the top 7 leadership positions in the firm:

  • The chair of the firm, who has held that position for several years, is openly gay.
  • One of the two firm-wide managing partners is a woman. 

  • One of the litigation department co-chairs is Latino, and one of the business department co-chairs is a woman.

Fielding a highly diverse top-level leadership team shows that Morrison has a deep bench of leadership talent, a willingness to embrace change, and the courage to place its future in the hands of leaders with fresh and diverse perspectives.

The recession may have curtailed some law firms’ efforts to increase diversity, but not Nixon Peabody’s.  That firm is expanding and reinforcing its commitment to diversity in a significant and unique way by expecting all lawyers in the firm to devote 40 hours annually to advancing the firm’s diversity efforts. By including an individual time commitment, it makes everyone personally responsible for promoting diversity.

The firm’s new Diversity Challenge, which rolled out on July 1, 2010, also sets specific goals for the Management Committee, all departments, and all practice groups. It makes these groups responsible for various activities that are common to many diversity initiatives (e.g., recruitment, training, mentoring, monitoring work assignments).  But Nixon Peabody’s initiative also focuses on retention and leadership development by including business opportunities, succession planning and community involvement in the initiative.  Most importantly, accountability for meeting goals is built into the Diversity Challenge at all levels, from firm-wide monitoring and reporting by the Management Committee to yearly review of individual contributions.

2010 InnovAction Awards

The College of Law Practice Management 2010 InnovAction Award winners were recognized at the Futures Conference and Symposium in Washington, DC, on October 23.  This year’s top award, which recognizes unique innovations in law practice management, went to Pro Bono Net, a national nonprofit organization working to increase access to justice.  Pro Bono Net won the award for its development of LawHelp Interactive, which provides a national infrastructure for online legal document assembly and helps tens of thousands of low-income people each year to complete needed legal forms.

New York-based legal services provider Axiom received the InnovAction Honorable Mention Award.  Axiom was honored for the way it helps law department managers solve business problems by helping them operate their departments more efficiently and effectively.

Information about these award winners and the other entries that were considered is posted on the website of the College of Law Practice Management.

PD Roundtable for Global Law Firms

The Professional Development Roundtable for Global Law Firms is now accepting membership applications for 2011. This Roundtable provides a forum where individuals in charge of professional development in global law firms can regularly share information, study and consider best practices, and explore the challenging issues that they face. Membership is limited to partners, directors, and officers in charge of lawyers' professional development at a strategic level in law firms with at least four international offices.

The objectives of the Roundtable are to:

  1. Provide a venue for members to share information and learn from each other in an environment built on mutual trust and confidentiality
  2. Create a network of high-level professionals responsible for professional development of the lawyers in their firms' global offices

Members come together once a year and hold teleconferences during the year.  The next meeting of the Roundtable will be held in July 2011 in Chicago, at the offices of Baker & McKenzie. 
If your firm qualifies for the Roundtable, this is an opportunity you do not want to miss. For further information and a membership application, please contact me.

Upcoming Speaking Engagements

November 9, 2010: Interview by Karen Kahn about Women on Top: The Woman’s Guide to Leadership and Power in Law Firms, NAWL Connect, Listen and Learn Series.

November 10, 2010:ASPIRE and Achieve: Ambition and Strategy as Tools for Success, No Glass Ceiling Conference, Bar Association of San Francisco.

November 17, 2010: Eliminating Gender Bias, Counsel for the State Bar of California, San Francisco.

December 7, 2010:  Featured speaker, The New York Women’s Bar Association Foundation, Cornell Club, New York City.  For more information, please contact Katherine Posner at 212-894-6730. 

January 13, 2011: Women on Top: Managing Life, Work, and Leadership in Your Legal Career, Queen’s Bench, San Francisco.

February 3-4, 2011: Mentoring in the Age of Generations X and Y, DRI, Sharing Success – A Seminar for Women Lawyers, Miami Beach, FL

Recent Publications

How Political Dynamics Undermine Gender Balance in Law Firm Leadership and What Your Firm Must Do About It, Lex Mundi, Global Opportunities for Advancement and Leadership for Women in the Legal Profession.

Becoming a Law Firm Leader: Three Key Strategies for Women, The Woman Advocate, ABA Litigation Section.


©2010 Ida Abbott Consulting