Are Women's Initiatives in Big Law Firms Really Underfunded, or Misdirected?

November 19, 2012

Why do I have the feeling that discussing Women's Initiatives in law firms will only get me into trouble?top_logo.gif

A recent report by the National Association of Women Lawyers finds that 97% of large law firms have women's initiatives, but that they often lack the funding and goals to make a difference. I read the entire 34-page report, and came to a few conclusions. First, nothing surprised me about the results. Second, most of the concerns correlate to one another. Yes, there are less equity partners, thus yes, women don't end up with as much rainmaking credit; thus yes, women don't end up in positions of firm-wide leadership (since they are not equity partners and not originating business); and yes, women don't receive the same compensation since they are not originating as much business. In the end, it all comes back to the ability to generate business.

What the report fails to do is offer any real solutions to the stated problems. I've worked with many similar initiatives over the last 10+ years and found mixed results. For the most part, it is not for a lack of funding. Law firms finance these efforts, and finance related activities. Surprisingly (that is my mocking voice), putting a firm logo or advertisement in a dinner program or similar magazine supplement does not make things better. Providing "workshops" on rainmaking by people that are not actually female lawyer rainmakers in real life don't help either (if you are going to be effective, then you need to provide women partners from your own law firm). And, finally, providing spa services and high teas (yes, these are done) does not lead a female associate into the partnership and leadership ranks of a law firm.

In highlighting "networking", the question is whether largely internal, female-isolated events really do anything to correct the problems of partnership, origination and compensation. Isn't your best bet to expose attorneys of any gender to the most successful rainmakers (of any gender) within your firms? Many of the networking events are subliminal (or not) recruiting and retention vehicles for women attorneys. With more and more corporate counsel expecting (and demanding) a more diverse mix, law firm leadership often sweat the lack of representation from the non-male core. Simply not having female partners can lead to lost business--and at the end of the day revenue is revenue, regardless of who specifically is bringing it in.

I've found it imperative that a women's initiative be led by example--by a female attorney that has successfully navigated the minefield to partnership at your law firm. Rather than run around and attend "women's" programming, attend practice-specific and leadership conferences that are not necessarily about gender. The greatest benefit of affinity groups--and I could say the same thing about groups directed toward race, religion, charitable or civic commonality--is that we are more likely to send business to similarly situated colleagues--thus the value there is in networking that would ideally lead to actual origination.

Where my views and ideas tail off is when the conversation really shifts from sexism and bias to work-life balance and parenthood. Many of the post-report articles morphed into discussions about quality of life, and in some cases, pointed to the publicized departure memo from a Clifford Chance associate. I read the memo, and to be honest with you, gave out a quiet "boo hoo." She briefly references her husband as a do-nothing helper. I have no idea who he is or what he does, but I can tell you that if he does not contribute his fair share to child-rearing, they can go see a therapist. That is not a big law issue, it is a marital one. There is a tradeoff to the money you earn at Big Law. In working with young associates, I'll often remind them that they are not earning $200k for nothing. And there are family decisions to be made by the "corporation" of two partners (if I sympathize with anyone on these issues, it is one parent households). You can maximize revenue at the expense of day-to-day happiness; hire help at the expense of raising your own kids; and have a household with two inflexible jobs that leads to constant stress. I live in a two professional household with two little ones (4 and 8), and we weigh the pros and cons of each of these things in all of our decision-making. I know that in the last week, I missed one day taking care of one sick kid and my wife missed one day taking care of the other.

If your firm is serious about narrowing the gender gap, then you need to get more serious as to process, procedure and where the money is spent versus being able to say that you support it and fund it. There is support and then there is support. Some of the most effective law firm management committee partners I interact with are female. For the most part, they are not thought of as "representing the female constituent" but are in those positions of power because they have been successful lawyers. Building initiatives that can lead to the desired end result would be a welcome change.