Women Legal 2012

by Vault Law Editors | June 08, 2012

An inspiring group of leaders spoke passionately and candidly about gender diversity in the legal industry at the 5th Annual Women Legal Conference yesterday in New York. Conference participants heard from women partners, general counsels and other industry experts on the state of women in law, the strengths and weaknesses of traditional diversity programming, implicit biases in the workplace and strategies for getting and retaining power as a woman lawyer. For those who weren’t able to attend this year’s conference, here are some of the most pertinent words of wisdom that were shared:

Things have improved, but we have a long way to go. Carla Christofferson, Managing Partner of O’Melveny & Meyers in Los Angeles, shared some sobering statistics about retention rates for women at AmLaw 100 law firms. Although incoming associate classes are comprised of 50% women, only 15% of equity partners—and 5% of managing partners—are women. A full half of AmLaw 100 firms have zero women on their management committees. And even among equity partners, women make 70 cents on the dollar compared to their male counterparts. Increased hiring of women, diversity programming and affinity groups, while important, have not done enough to increase the rates at which women attorneys are promoted. Christofferson said it was imperative for firms to develop individual, customized plans to keep high-achieving women on the partnership track and, once they’ve made partner, to develop them into successful rainmakers who will take on management positions.

It’s not in your head—implicit biases likely exist at your organization. Just because workplace biases in the 21st century are (usually) not overt doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Implicit bias is real, and it affects women’s ability to advance. For example, according to Christofferson, studies have shown that men and women associates are judged differently during their annual reviews. While men are judged on their potential for business development, women are evaluated on the tangible things they have already accomplished. Christofferson and the other panelists suggested that educating reviewing partners about this inherent bias can go a long way toward eliminating the practice.

Self-promotion is essential. Speaking of annual reviews, don’t assume that your supervisor or partner knows about all the great things you’ve done. Heidi Levine, a partner at DLA Piper in New York, suggests writing an “I love me” memo every year that includes a list of all your accomplishments. Be prepared to pitch yourself at your review meeting by explaining exactly what you have done to deserve a bonus, raise or promotion.

If you have a book of business, you call the shots. Achieving success at a law firm eventually comes down to developing and retaining clients. Roberta Liebenberg, a senior partner at Fine Kaplan and Black in Philadelphia, said that once you’ve established yourself as a rainmaker, you have the leverage to ask for alternative arrangements like flex-time or work-from-home days. However, several panelists warned against spending excessive time working from home. Ellen Rosenthal, Vice President and Assistant General Counsel for Litigation at Pfizer, said that because so many important connections are made at the office, attorneys who work from home may be at a significant disadvantage when it comes to getting the best assignments.

Take advantage of crisis situations. All companies and firms go through major crunch times, and the way you handle those situations can make a huge difference in how you are perceived at work. Susan Blount, Senior Vice President and General Counsel of Prudential Financial, Inc., advised attorneys to take advantage of those crises by stepping up to the plate and becoming the go-to person for solutions.

Want a mentor? Go out and find one. Don’t expect a mentor or sponsor to come knocking at your door offering advice. Levine stressed that women need to take the initiative to find their own mentors. Moreover, Geri Presti, Senior Vice President and General Counsel of Forest City Enterprises, said that once you find a mentor, you should resist the urge to use him or her as a sounding board for your work-related frustration. Instead, use your mentor to strategize about your next move.

Men can make great mentors for women, too. Women attorneys can greatly benefit from male mentors. As Christofferson pointed out, male attorneys already know how to “play the game,” and can offer great advice on moving up the ranks. And, as Rosenthal noted, any attorney—male or female—who has achieved good work/life balance by maintaining positive family relationships can make an excellent mentor on those issues.

The path to success is not always a straight line. Having an end goal in sight is important, but Blount advised women to think broadly of how they can get there. Stay flexible, take advantage of opportunities you are offered as they arise, and focus on the big picture of your career instead of just the next promotion.

--Rachel Marx, Law Editor

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Filed Under: Law | Workplace Issues


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