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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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
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.