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Women Partners in Law Firms: Best Practices for Much-Needed Change

By Linda Dakin-Grimm

January 2003

Linda Dakin-Grimm is a partner in the Los Angeles, California office of Milbank, Tweed,
Hadley & McCloy LLP. She is a member of the firm’s litigation group and the co-chair of the
firm’s diversity committee. Ms. Dakin-Grimm has handled numerous trial and appellate cases
as well as mediation and arbitration proceedings. She received a B.A. cum laude from Yale
University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School.


Ms. Dakin-Grimm’s publications include: articles in “California Litigation,” “California
Management Review,” “Corporate Conduct Quarterly,” “California Law Business,” “Verdicts
& Settlements,” the “National Underwriter,” “Reinsurance” magazine, “Mealey’s Litigation
Reports: Reinsurance”; the “Environmental Claims Journal”, and a chapter on corporate
criminal liability in the treatise, “Compliance Programs and the Corporate Sentencing
Guidelines,” published by West Group (New York). Ms. Dakin-Grimm speaks widely on
litigation and reinsurance issues. This article was written for STATUS by invitation of the editors.

U.S. LAW SCHOOLS have been educating classes consisting of 50% women, on average, for many years.
Women occupy a steadily growing percentage of judgeships as well as legal positions in
government agencies and in industry. In private practice, however, notwithstanding the fact that
women are proportionally represented in the attorney entering cohorts at most major law
firms, women continue to be significantly underrepresented at the equity partnership level in
those firms. And the numbers are not improving in any meaningful way.


In 2002, the average percentage of women in major law firm “partnerships” is widely reported
to be 15%. This statistic is, however, misleading, and likely inflated. This is because of the
growing trend in major law firms to bestow the title “partner” without actually granting any
equity ownership in the firms. Such “partners,” who often are counted in diversity statistics, are
privately called “non-equity partners,” and are, in effect, salaried employees with no more job
security or power than associate attorneys. Because law firms and the non-equity partners
themselves are loathe to discuss this practice, there are no reliable data on how many of the
women reported to be partners in major law firms are actually in the nonequity class.


Women enter major law firms at the same rate as men. During the course of what is traditionally an eight to ten year associateship, however, women depart the law firm world at a startling rate.
By the time partnership decisions are made, women often are simply not around
to be considered. The reasons for the failure of law firms to retain women lawyers are numerous. Two of the most significant are:


Family-related Issues


The typical law school graduate is in his or her mid to late twenties, and has just completed
seven years of higher-level education. The average length of time law firms expect lawyers
to work as “associates” before consideration for partnership is 8-10 years. In order to have
sufficiently good standing even to be considered for partnership, law firms expect their associates
to “bill” in excess of 2000 hours per year during this period of associateship, and often
significantly more. Because lawyers must spend substantial additional “non-billable” time at
work, this translates into 50- to 60-hour weeks, without factoring in time for vacation. The longestablished
cultures in many law firms dictate that if a lawyer is not willing or able to devote
the full-time effort to the firm, that lawyer is not “serious” about the practice of law at the
highest level.


Unfortunately, this system, which works reasonably well for men who are not expected
to be the primary caregivers in families, often does not work well for women. The years during
which law firms expect their associates to devote sixty hours per week to law are the very same
years during which most women establish their families and have children. In fact, the dramatic
drop in female fertility after 35 would seem to indicate that a woman who wants children
would not be wise to postpone having them until after 35 — that is, until after “making
partner” in a law firm.


Many women enter firms fully intending to“do it all” — have a satisfying career in a law
firm and have children as well. Unfortunately, the system is so inflexible that many of them
find that they cannot do it all, so the women leave.


Law Firm Culture-Related Issues


Most experts on diversity in the work place agree that effective mentoring relationships are
critical to retention of persons of diverse backgrounds in the work place. Lawyers,
like everyone else, have a natural tendency to mentor people who remind them of
their younger selves. Thus, men have a tendency to mentor young white men, as
women have a tendency to mentor young women. Given that there are few women
partners in major law firms (and some are not interested in mentoring young women at all) young women in
law firms often feel that they have no role models and mentoring support to encourage and
guide them through their early careers.


The most successful law firms have recognized the need to better retain women, and to increase
the number of women in their partnerships. These firms have implemented a number of
practices aimed at improving retention of women and increasing the number of women in their
partnerships. These practices are outlined here.


Cultural Practices

1. The better firms institute diversity training programs, with participation mandatory for all lawyers. The goal of such programs is to foster a work environment that is hospitable to women
and persons of diverse backgrounds, and to increase sensitivity to and awareness
of diversity — and specifically gender — issues.

2. The better firms establish diversity committees to act as an ongoing force to
identify, at a relatively early stage, women candidates for partnership from all
practice groups, and to work to ensure equal opportunities for those candidates.

3. Better law firms explicitly identify as a criterion, for determining existing partner
compensation, a partner’s efforts to improve diversity within the firm and,
in particular, efforts to enhance the retention of women within the practice group.


Flexibility Recommendations

4. The better law firms establish “flex time” policies, which permit associates, in
appropriate circumstances, to work from home during both standard and nonstandard
business hours, to accommodate family needs. To make such policies truly
effective, the firms must clarify to their associates that they are committed to
making the flex time policy meaningful, and that attorneys who take advantage of
the policy will not be stigmatized as a result thereof.

5. The better law firms establish part-time policies, for family reasons, that are not
perceived as a “dead end” or “mommy track” program, available “only in the
most exceptional circumstances.” The part-time policies must state expressly
that attorneys who take advantage of the policy will not be stigmatized as a result
thereof, and will be considered for partnership.

6. The better law firms allow flexibility in the return to work schedule following a
parental leave. Specifically, parents who are primary caretakers are allowed to
return to work on a limited schedule after parental leave and, in appropriate
cases, to increase their hours gradually as child care demands permit, without
jeopardizing their chances of partnership.


Organizational Recommendations


7. The better law firms have established women’s groups supported by the
interested women partners, to provide women with a forum to discuss issues
common to women.

8. The better law firms have adopted formal mentoring programs to make women
associates (among others) as comfortable as possible within the firm as soon as
possible, with a mentor available to “run interference” for the associate when the
need arises and generally to try to replicate the support relationships that
come to exist naturally for certain people. In light of the difficulty in
retaining women once they are in the partnership, the mentoring process
should continue for incoming women partners, to ensure, to the extent
possible, that women partners possess the same base of knowledge about how to
succeed within the partnership as do male partners.

9. The most successful law firms have implemented steps on the practice group
level to ensure that assignments are allocated among associates with a view to
fostering training and development on a“gender-blind” basis, and that associate
evaluations are compiled with due recognition of gender-based differences
in work/communication styles.

10. The most successful firms have made an effort to appoint a woman partner to a
visible management role.

While these suggestions will not be a “cure” for the retention of women, they may serve as a
beginning. Similar practices are likely to be effective in other male-dominated professions,
such as astronomy.

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