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Women are entering the law firm workforce in solid numbers, but their numbers diminish rapidly as you look higher up the ranks. According to The National Association for Law Placement (NALP) “Women and Minorities at Law Firms by Race and Ethnicity” data from 2015, the news has been mixed at best. The share of women partners is growing at a slow pace while the percentage of associates in practice slides.
A ready supply of women graduates is not the problem. For at least two decades, the number of admitted female law school applicants has been close to the number of males law school. But the share of women in practicing law drops significantly. Today, women make up less than 45 percent of all associates, continuing a decline in their share of the population that started in 2010. Women have the largest share at the entry level, and their share declines every year thereafter. “There’s plenty of female talent coming out of law school, it’s retaining and advancing women that is an issue,” says Dawn M. Schluter, principal and personal services group leader at Miller Canfield.
The difference is stark at the partnership level. Just 21 percent of law firm partners are women, and the gap is even more significant at the equity partner level. Just under 8 percent of the largest Biglaw firms included in the NALP study (those with 701 lawyers or more) have no women partners whatsoever. “I graduated from law school in 1993, and my class was fairly equally split between women and men. I didn’t expect to be this far out and have so few peers left in private practice.” says Diana C. Manning, principal at Bressler, Amery & Ross.
Five Tips for Recruiting & Retaining Women in Law
- Recognize that hiring is the beginning of the process, not the ending. Today, women make up an equal share of the population at law schools, summer programs, and first-year associate classes. Focus on retention throughout the associate track, not just filling the top of the funnel.
- Offer programs and training to help ensure women advance in the profession. Offering leadership and business skill training to female lawyers helps ensure a long and fruitful career within a firm or corporate office. Some firms offer mentor and sponsorship programs. “Our sponsorship program includes training sessions on business development and raising your profile,” says Abbi Cohen, partner at Dechert LLP and co-chair of the firm’s Global Women’s Initiative. “Senior women being considered for partnership need to be well-prepared and comfortable going through that formal process of presenting a business plan.”
- Consider adjusting requirements to re-entry after a separation. Research supports that women are disproportionately impacted by life events such as starting a family that occurs during prime associate years. Some women choose to take time off during their child’s formative years, or take extended maternity leave. “A few of the professional organizations have advanced the thinking that a short or even medium-length hiatus shouldn’t derail a person from practicing law,” says Schluter, who also serves as the chair of the group Women of Miller Canfield. “At our firm, we have clearly articulated that we want to have an on-ramp and off-ramp solution for all of our lawyers, not just those that would have maternity leave.”While some firms have developed “on-ramp and off-ramp” processes to make it easier to return to practice, others have made it difficult. “Re-entry programs make a lot of sense. It’s short-sighted to ignore that population and waste that relationship,” Cohen says. Dechert has already seen success in re-hiring those attorneys who have taken time off or reduced work-load to part-time or flex-time arrangements.
- Recognize that women leave law firms for a variety of reasons. Prime partner candidates are actively being courted by corporations, governments, and non-profits to transition from billable hours to in-house roles that often provide more work-life balance. When their female attorneys are courted, firms should be equally aggressive in articulating arguments for staying, beyond compensation. “You can make a lot of money doing other things that don’t involve the same amount of dedication as being an experienced partner would,” Manning says. “But there’s an excitement in putting together a presentation a jury can understand, or battling wits with an appellate panel of very intelligent judges, and those are the experiences and opportunities that we need to talk about.”
- Join crowdsourcing efforts to address the problem. The Women in Law Hackathonis bringing together talent from 54 law firms nationwide, along with Stanford Law students and expert advisors. The Hackathon aims to develop new innovations for the advancement and retention of women in law firms by pitting nine teams against one another in a “Shark Tank”-style contest.Miller Canfield has a team of 20 working on their pitch, which in competitive spirit they elected to keep under wraps because the judges had not yet ruled on the proposal. But early feedback suggests that the Hackathon is spurring fresh ideas. “Our judges gave us preliminary input on our proposal, and told us that we were sharing ideas that nobody else was talking about,” Schluter says.
Looking to diversify your legal team? At Special Counsel, we have extensive experience sourcing qualified, legal professionals, from staff attorneys to partners to in-house counsel. If your office is ready to build a more diverse team, contact one of our offices to get started.
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