Retaining women in law firms

Women make up half of the law student demographic. By 2018’s stats, only one in five make partner. Why?

I’M not going to stop the wheel. I’m going to break the wheel.” That’s what Daenerys Targaryen declared when she contemplated the seemingly endless, bloodthirsty cycle of which ruling family sits on the Iron Throne. Dany’s take-no-prisoners stance on an outdated and ongoing practice wouldn’t go amiss if we applied it to the current cycle we see for the retention of women in law firms – her exasperation is certainly shared by many.

This is the pattern. Firms recruit a fairly even split of men and women (across 104 Biglaw firms we found that 45% of junior associates are women). Then, as you go up the ranks the gap widens as female attorneys start to fall away. By the time you get to partner level, just one in five is a woman.

We often hear that this will take a generation or two to change, and that the efforts made now are laying the foundation for that change. Many of these efforts are focused on the recruitment stage, which shouldn’t be too difficult when you consider the pool firms are fishing in for their new recruits. As of January 2017, 47% of JDs awarded went to women. So the recruitment efforts are certainly there. But compare the current figures of female associates and female partners at Biglaw firms side by side, and the difference is clear: men are four times as likely to make partner.

Should I stay or should I go?

At the University of Texas, you’ll find the Center for Women in Law, an educational institution that serves to further the advancement of women in the profession at every level, from the freshman to the junior associate, all the way up the ranks to senior partners and counsel. Executive director Linda Chanow is something of a veteran when it comes to working to advance women in the legal profession. For over twenty years she’s been putting time and resources into building networks and initiatives to support women.

She identifies three strands as to whether a woman will stay or go at a firm: “The first is whether they have intellectually challenging work or not, because they’re lawyers – they’ve gone through a lot of schooling and they like to be challenged. The second is whether they feel their contributions are valued, and the third is that they are able to reasonably manage their personal and professional responsibilities.”

“If you have interesting work but no one cares you’re doing it, you’re not being paid appropriately, and your work/life balance is horrible, you’re gonna leave.”

Imagine a Venn diagram with one circle to each of those three overlapping criteria. Only the center spot will do. Chanow emphasizes: “If you have a great part-time schedule but your work isn’t valued or challenging, you’re gonna leave, regardless of how great your schedule is. If you have interesting work but no one cares you’re doing it, you’re not being paid appropriately, and your work/life balance is horrible, you’re gonna leave. If you’re getting great pay but the work is terrible and you have no ability to balance your life, you’re gonna leave.” She underlines that these three factors shouldn’t be treated in isolation: “Where I think a lot of organizations have missed the boat is by focusing on only one of those things at a time and not thinking about the relatedness of those three. Women are driven by all three. If you have only one – and it doesn’t matter which one – then you’re either trying to find a new job, or you’re at least trying really hard for a change.”

Tick tock

While it may take some time for the factors listed above to materialize, there’s reason to suggest that a woman’s trajectory at a firm may be determined in a very short space of time. Studies have shown that the period of time for junior lawyers to get integrated into their new firm and build a support network is a surprisingly short window – just twelve weeks. Chanow explains why this is especially problematic for women: “We know that 80% of the partnership that are men, and we know people tend to partner up with people like them. So even if a class is split 50/50, when the partnership is 80% men, not all of the women are going to get picked up and brought into the networks right away.”

On top of the mirroring factor, “Lawyers also have very limited time to mentor, so they’re going to mentor the people they think are going to succeed. They’ll think men won’t leave when they have they kids, so they gravitate toward them. Even when women don’t leave, it’s still in people’s minds that they will, and it’s always a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

The combination of these factors mean that "men have had completely different experiences and appear to look much more able to navigate that first year. If women aren’t being mentored the same as men from day one, then they’re not going to get integrated in the same way, so they’re going to leave.”

 “We’re weeding out women way too soon.”

For many firms, major trainings often don’t start until the associates are in their third or fourth year, by which point many of the women have already left. In Chanow’s opinion, “we’re weeding out women way too soon, and not giving them the same type of resources and access to the right work and partners.” To help women get integrated quicker and earlier, the CWIL’s Accelerate program aims to counteract these factors and help integrate women starting out in a firm. It’s aimed at first-year associates whose firms have formally signed up to the program, which Chanow says is intentional: “It sends the very valuable message that the firm is behind this woman, and it also doesn’t put even more pressure on a woman. If you’re a brand new lawyer at a firm you’d have to ask for time off to do the program, and first-year lawyers are not in position to negotiate for that, and we don’t want them to be.”

Firm life

It’s not a particularly heartening landscape for a female law student to cast her eyes on. She goes through the long, hard slog of law school, achieves what her male counterparts achieve, puts in the same legwork as them and pushes herself just as hard. And after all of that she earns her place in a network that from the outset is structured against her. ‘We value our female lawyers’, firms cry from the rooftops of diversity fairs, the message emblazoned across their website’s diversity banners. And yet despite these efforts, the pattern persists.

We don’t mean to suggest that firms are not genuinely driven to diversify their workforce and prove their commitment through the numbers. Scores of diversity committees across Biglaw firms know all too well about that pattern, and they’re fed up with it too. From the Chambers Associate data, we've identified a couple of firms whose figures reveal not only an above average number of female associates, but also an above average number of female partners. We turned to them to understand what kind of landscape its female associates are working in.

At Jenner & Block (29.8% female partners), the junior mentorship program recognizes the urgency to ensure associates are integrated quickly by pairing its first- to third-year associates with three different lawyers, one per year. “And here’s the key part,” says chief talent officer Charlotte Wager, “We’re not pairing all women with women, or all LGBT with LGBT. For many, the inclination is to say, ‘She’s a woman of color, so let’s pair her up with another woman of color.’ But we know that people naturally gravitate to people who look like them, and we have affinity groups, so the likelihood is they find each other anyway.” In particular for female juniors, “It’s important for them to find male mentors as well because that’s where a lot of the power is.”

Feature: Jenner & Block's LGBT lawyers explain how their firm has achieved such high numbers of LGBT associates.

Jenner’s associate director of diversity & inclusion Courtney Dredden Carter explains the thinking behind Jenner’s approach to retention: “It’s challenging at a law firm – the work, the hours. When folks feel they can’t bring their authentic selves to work they tend to opt out.” Elsewhere at Jenner, the firm works with Diversity Lab on several initiatives including a ‘returnership’ for women who’ve taken a step away from firm life and are ready to step back into it. Wager explains “Everyone has a different reason for taking a step back. For some it might have been to raise children; others have had spouses in the military and had to move elsewhere.” Of the three returners at Jenner, Wager tells us all three are still affiliated with the firm: “It’s been excellent for us to be able to find and bring in talented women we might not otherwise have seen.”

Diversity isn’t simply getting people in the door, and that is where firms and large institutions fail.”

Jennifer Mikulina chairs the gender diversity group at McDermott, Will & Emery (32% women partners). The group is composed of four sub-groups, each with a different function, including the retention group. Mikulina explains, “We want people to feel connected, and that includes women across different practice groups. If there are women who don’t work with as many other women in their group, it’s important for them to feel they can go to other women attorneys with any issue. We want there to be different avenues for women to connect. The retention group focuses on how we can solidify those connections and help build an internal network for women.” Hiring partner Linda Doyle adds that “diversity isn’t simply getting people in the door, and that is where firms and large institutions fail. We’ve looked at large companies to see what they’ve done in the diversity space to keep people.”

Carrie Valiant is the chair of the Diversity and Professional Development Committee at Epstein, Becker & Green. “To me it’s about customizing a career path,” she says. “Some women want to low-key it when their kids are young. The challenge then is to find the point in time when they’re ready to step up again, and encourage them to do so. But you can’t assume that’s what all women want. A lot of women have been the breadwinner in the family and are not necessarily looking to low-key it. You’ve got to be sensitive to the needs of various women coming through the ranks in the firm.” Valiant herself has been at Epstein since 1984 and became a shareholder at the firm eight years into her career. She says, “We know that every generation of women needs different things and we need to be cognizant of that. In the past decade there’s always been at least two women on the board. It makes a difference when women can see when there’s a career path for them and there are people for them to model their career after.”

Filling in the gaps

For many students, it’s not just a case of navigating the start of their career as a woman, but also as a minority. When Linda Chanow started to notice some concerning commonalities in the anecdotes she was hearing from students of color, she was prompted to do something about it. She says, “students were coming back to me after networking events and saying a person at the networking event tried to kiss them, or wanted a ‘quid pro quo’ favor from them – I will help if you do something for me. The only women I was hearing this from were women of color, and I started to see this potential pattern. I wanted to know if it was happening more frequently for women of color than for white women.” 

The CWIL, along with the American Bar Association, is now in the early stages of research into the experiences of women of color in law school. Approximately 50 schools are expected to participate in the first round of the study, which will collect answers from students of different ethnicities both male and female, to compare and contrast their experiences.

The hypothesized pattern that the research is testing posed two questions for Chanow: “How does it impact the trajectory of a student’s career? And how we can do a better job as law schools to prepare women to manage these potential situations?” Nearly 50% don’t have any women of color partners at all. “That’s a number I can’t get out of my head,” says Chanow. “Our goal is to get more women of color to have flourishing legal careers in whatever shape or form that might be. If there are gaps at the law school level, how can we encourage schools to fill those gaps so we can get at that number?”

Elsewhere at the CWIL, Chanow explains that the little things can make a big difference. Students on the CWIL’s internship program quickly learn “we have a no-apology zone in my office, so if a student walks in and apologizes for interrupting, we say ‘Walk back out and try that again.’ Those small things that have a huge impact.” To foster students’ self-belief, the Center has made sure pictures of female alum adorn the walls of the law school, highlighting their achievements for all to see. Chanow says, “You can see women stand a little differently around the school now.”

Self-belief is one of two core concepts at the heart of the Grit Project – an initiative by the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession to guide women lawyers to success. Their research identified qualities they define as ‘grit’ and ‘growth’ in all successful female lawyers (and we reckon successful women, period). Grit is defined as perseverance and passion for long-term goals, and growth as the self-belief to accomplish them. The Project outlines that these are traits that women can learn and develop, which is good news. You’ll need them both to break the wheel.