Have we come a long way baby? When it comes to female lawyers at law firms, the answers may be a resounding no. While women represent approximately 45% of associates, the only represent 20% of partners.
Vault took a look back at its most recent Associate Survey, in which nearly 17,000 associates at law firms from across the country rated their firms in areas such as satisfaction, hours, compensation, diversity, and associate/partner relations. And in nearly all of these areas, women rated their firms lower than did men. While that’s not new, what is interesting is that the same issues that have plagued women’s careers over the last few decades endure:
First, many female associates feel that it is impossible to have a family and make partner—and so they take themselves off the partnership track, even before they have children.
If that’s true, so what can firms do about it? How many progressive law firms offer on-site childcare or reduced hours with the opportunity to make partner? Not many. At the end of the day, it’s about billing a lot of hours and bringing business to the firm, and if you have other responsibilities, such as child rearing, and don’t want to have a partner or third parties to do it for you, the chances of making partner are slim to none. Unless firms change the rules of the game, the choices for women will be the same.
Second, female associates complain that their male counterparts have different—and better—opportunities for business development, important assignments and mentorship.
Is this a case where men prefer other men in terms of providing assignments, either consciously or subconsciously? Could this be related to the fact that women are not perceived as available or motivated to become partner? Given that a majority of women are leaving before partnership there is some truth to that assumption, and this could be a catch-22 issue. Would women partners be more likely to provide other women more opportunities? That’s not necessarily true. Perhaps this is a case where women may have to be more proactive and actively seek opportunities, rather than wait for them to be assigned.
Finally, a common complaint among senior women associates is that their potential for making partnership is not clear enough.
That gripe is equally true when it comes to men. What it takes to make partner at major law firms is as clear as mud, whether you are a man or a woman. However, the fact that men represent 80% of partners may means that the message is not necessarily what is making the difference. At the end of the day, you have to stand out. To do that, you have to work on the big transactions and litigation, put in the hours, and bring in the clientele. There is no one way to do it, and firms are not keen to give its associates clear directions on how to make it, simply because there isn’t a whole lot of room at the top.
While law firms have been creating more innovative and far-reaching programs and policies, the rub is in the lack of action. The numbers speak for themselves. The good news is that these are issues that are being talked about, but the bad news is that old stigmas, gender assumptions, and business practices endure.
The litigation successes were among several reasons Microsoft was named Best Legal Department of 2010. The department achieved success after having its budget and staff cut for the first time, due to the economic meltdown. The department improved its diversity, it's helped laid-off workers get free computer training, and has represented immigrant children in court. In other words, it has reached out to the community and given back in tough times.
All three legal departments that were selected this year (the other three finalists) had one thing in common: they retooled and achieved great success doing "more with less."
- Finalist: Discover Financial Services
- Finalist: Hewlett-Packard Company
- Finalist: The Williams Companies, Inc.
2009 Net Income: $1.3 billion
General Counsel: Kelly McNamara Corley
Number of In-House Lawyers: 34
Pro's: Doing a lot with very little.
Con's: No formal pro bono program.
Hewlett-Packard Company (HP)
2009 Revenue/Net income: $114.55/$7.66 billion
General Counsel: Robert Holston
Number of In-House Lawyers: 190/425 (worldwide)
Pro's: Good litigation management, excellent pro bono and diversity programs.
Con's: Ad hoc flextime and fixed-fee arrangements.
Why Was It Picked as a Finalist: Retooling of the legal department, reorganization of litigation, and commitment to pro bono and diversity. "This isn't a place lawyers go to retire," said deputy GC Ashley Watson. Today, HP lawyers describe the department as "energized." In the past two years especially, there have been higher work expectations, a boatload of new hires, and ambitious new projects like revamping the company's worldwide system for complying with local laws that have meant more work for newcomers and veterans alike. Changes were not easily made, but today HP's Legal Department stands as one of the best in the country.
2009 Revenue/Net Income: $8.3 billion/$285M
General Counsel: Jim Bender
Number of In-House Lawyers: 39
Pro's: Outside counsel management, discovery, and pro bono efforts.
Why Was It Picked as a Finalist: Williams' legal department was able to do what most talk about, but never get to achieve: to cut its outside legal expenses by about 15 percent. The effort started six years ago, when General Counsel Jim Bender decided to reduce the number of law firms the natural gas company used, and implemented blended-rates (that came as close to fixed rates as can be). Williams's ability to use its data to effectively manage outside counsel is one reason it was chosen as a finalist for Best Legal Department. They've also done a god job implementing a new compliance program and developing a comprehensive approach to discovery. Kudos for a legal department that's done what most hope to achieve , but never quite get to do - make real cuts into outside legal fees.
Firms can choose from two alternative diversity goals. The first is a 2% increase in the hours worked by U.S.-based diverse attorneys as a percentage of total hours worked on Microsoft matters, compared with the same time period last year. The second goal is a 0.5 percent increase in the total number of U.S.-based diverse attorneys employed by the firm.
In other words, the first goal focuses on diverse representation for Microsoft, while the second focuses on diverse representation in the firm’s U.S. offices overall. Microsoft practices what it preaches; 44% of its senior counsels are women or minorities, and 50% its junior level attorneys are women or minorities.
Microsoft’s efforts to increase diversity within its outside counsel are noble, but the solution it offers is questionable. Providing “bonuses” for law firms to do what they should be required to do ethically, morally, and professionally in the first place, is a sad commentary on the state of our legal industry.
It is easy to understand Microsoft’s effort to try something new. Four year since the "Call to Action" was launched, little has changed in terms of law firm diversity. Yet, the solution it offers leaves much to be desired. Are incentives without sanctions little less than a bribe? And more importantly, is this an effective solution?
Throwing money at a problem has seldom yielded correct solutions. This is especially true when one considers the types of revenues generated by big U.S law firms. As reported by The Lawyer (March 24, 2008), U.S. firms had their best year ever in 2007, with the top 50 firms generating collective revenues of $46.8 billion!
Will a 2% bonus on hours already worked, as proposed by Microsoft make a difference one way or the other? That’s unlikely for big firms who are already guaranteed to make $150M in fees.
Is it the solution itself that is problematic, or the fact that it lacks teeth to be effective? It’s probably a little bit of both. It is difficult to get over the unpleasant taste of companies giving bonuses, in what essentially mounts to “bribes” to law firms to do what they should be doing in the first place. Perhaps it is part of the solution. While it is evident that in order to effect tangible change, companies need to tie their demands to the purse strings of law firms, spending more money on a broken system will not alone fix the problem.
What we need is accountability from law firms. Law firms need to develop business plans and strategies that fundamentally incorporate diversity as part of their structure and organization, together with measurable benchmarks and goals. In order to obtain this, companies should implement a combination of sanctions and incentives that have measurable impacts on the revenues of big law firms.
If Microsoft had in addition to its "Law Firm Diversity Program" implemented a measure whereby it committed to only engage law firms that either increased the hours worked by its U.S.-based minority attorneys by 2%, or increase the total number of their U.S.-based minority attorneys by 0.5% - then the policy would have had the kind of teeth to effect real change. Threatening $150M in revenues has a lot more of an impact than potentially adding another $30M to the pot.
Many corporate clients already reward diversity in their outside counsel (not in terms of bonuses per se, but by giving these firms more work, preferred provider status, or by hiring them in the first place)—yet, the numbers of women and lawyers of color at those firms have not changed much. Obviously, rewards alone, whether monetary or otherwise, are not sufficient to effect change in this situation.
The Call To Action pledged that corporations would end relationships with law firms that hadn't made significant progress in becoming more diverse. Yet, few companies have committed to this pledge. If they had, the legal landscape might look quite different.
Susan Hackett, senior vice president and general counsel of the Association of Corporate Counsel, who has been involved in Call To Action, stated in a recent (May 2008) National Law Journal article that companies were not ready to make this kind of sacrifice.
"While they may be committing to diversity principles, that's a difficult decision when talking about firms that have done good work for you," Hackett stated. Also, general counsel executives could feel hypocritical judging the diversity of the law firms they use if they haven't made substantial progress in their own law departments, she said.
If this is the case, then how can companies ask law firms to increase diversity within their ranks when they are not committed to doing the same within their own legal departments, or are unwilling to make the necessary sacrifices themselves? Most probably can't. On the other hand, a company like Microsoft, that has made a genuine commitment to diversity, had an opportunity to take a stance and initiate real change. Instead, it stopped one step short…and so will its law firms.
Yet how well are companies themselves doing when it comes to women and minorities in their legal departments? Surprisingly, not that well.
In terms of women, there were 40,018 law graduates in the class of 2004, nearly half of these graduates were women, and 43% of them were associates at law firms. However, only 31.5% of women made up the nation’s corporate legal departments.
It doesn’t get any better as women rise through the ranks. In 2007, 17.2% of the nation’s large law firm partners were women, compared to 16.6% of Fortune 500 general counsels.
In terms of minorities, progress has also been mixed. According to a 2008 Minority Corporate Counsel Association survey, the number of African Americans in Fortune 500 GC jobs continues to grow slowly, with 22 now holding such posts -- one fewer than last year.
The total of all minority GCs is up from 32 last year, and the number of Asian-American GCs has doubled, from 6 to 12. Unfortunately, a huge disparity in gender continues among Fortune 500 general counsel of color
Since 2004, over 110 general counsels have signed a Call to Action (CTA) pledge to hire law firms that demonstrate a commitment to diversity and to terminate firms that fail to show a meaningful interest in becoming diverse.
Some companies have implemented what they preach. A good example is Wal-Mart. When Tom Mars, Wal-Mart's chief attorney, joined the company in 2002, the legal department was comprised of 56 attorneys -- 20 of them women and 6 minorities.
Today, Wal-Mart employs 154 attorneys including 37 percent minorities and 43 percent women. Wal-Mart is in a good position to make demands of law firms and lead the charge when it comes to diversity.
But what about the other 100+ companies who have joined in this fight? How successful have they been in growing their corporate legal departments with minorities and women?
When things aren't going right, we tend to look outward. Perhaps, companies should be just as focused on increasing diversity within their own legal departments as they are law firms'.
At Valero Energy Corp. in San Antonio. Of the 30 lawyers in the company's legal department, about half are women. While the number of women actually practicing oil and gas law in Texas, the hotbed of the oil and gas industry, is hard to gauge, the percentage of women belonging to the State Bar of Texas' Oil, Gas and Energy Resources Law Section went from 12 percent in 1996-1997 to 15 percent in 2006-2007, the most recent year for which numbers are available.
The women oil and gas lawyers also say that they are seeing an increase in the number of women coming in and moving up. It's also a career that's hiring. "There is a big need for energy lawyers," affirms Betty Ellsworth Ungerman, assistant general counsel at Hunt Oil Co. in Dallas. "We've got a supply and demand situation, and there are a lot of places that are going to be in need" of oil and gas lawyers.
Perhaps this is an area for young women attorneys should consider as they begin their summer internship.
Although Hillary Clinton is, perhaps, a rare exception, there is a reason why women are underrepresented in lawyer-laden political circles.
It's because they don't fight as hard as men do for political office, writes Ruth Marcus in a Washington Post column.
"There is a substantial gender gap in political ambition; men tend to have it, and women don't," says a recent Brookings Institution report (PDF) that Marcus cites.
Disproportionate family responsibilities and a "cockiness gap," as Marcus describes it (men tend to have more confidence), also play a significant role in this discrepancy, the report found.
Does what Marcus terms an "ambition gap" between men and women in the political arena also help explain the disproportionately small number of female partners at law firms?
Women have no problem getting a foot in the door and working successfully at law firms initially for several years. But then they do not rise through the ranks to partner in the same numbers as their male counterparts. This is documented, for instance, in a recent study by a University of Iowa sociologist, although she is not the only one to have noted the phenomenon. Meanwhile, the reasons for discrepancy remain somewhat elusive.
"What we don't know is whether the women intentionally steered themselves off the path to partnership, or whether someone blocked the road and pushed them off," says sociologist Mary Noonan in a U of I press release about her study.
Virtually all of the women reported that they had experienced gender-based discrimination from other lawyers or clients, according to Noonan.
Writes Marcus: "Sometimes the hardest glass ceilings are the ones women impose, whether knowingly or unconsciously, on ourselves."
Here are my thoughts on this:
Family responsibilities still fall disproportionately on women, and certainly a number of women are not interested in becoming law firm partners or general counsels for a variety of reasons. Yet, the majority or women either leave or are not being promoted, not for lack of want or ambition.
There is evidence of class ceiling issues and quality of life issues that are still keeping a great number of women from achieving their full potential and filling these top positions.
Accounting firms have tapped into this issue, and their results have been astonishing. In 1993, before Deloitte & Touche initiated its "Women's Initiative," a mammoth program aimed at addressing various glass ceiling and quality of life issues for women - only 7% of partners were women.
Since the "Women's Initiative" was first launched in 1994 - 19.2% of partners are women, and growing. That's triple what it was nearly fifteen years ago. Despite this success, Deloitte acknowledges that they still have a ways to go.
Obviously, Deloitte & Touche seems to think that even more women are ready, willing, and able to move to these high level positions. This seems to suggest that want and ambition alone is not all that is necessary for women to accede to these top positions.
Since accounting firms and law firms operate under a very similar model, perhaps some of their successful strategies could be applicable to law firms as well. There is something to be said about law firms, as well as companies in general, that are coming up short in terms of promoting more women to the top. Are they missing something?
The issue more often than not is not about women not wanting these positions, but rather about women not getting to a place where they can refuse them.
What do you think?
According to Virginia G. Essandoh, an Altman Weil senior consultant, expressed concernes that "while some all firms appear to have decided to "do something" about diversity... The lack of substantial progress begs the question: Are law firms and legal departments putting forth their very best effort in improving diversity?" Read the full article at Law.com.