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4 Ways to Reduce the Legal Industry’s Gender Divide

Oct. 20, 2016, 10:49 PM

Two reports over the past week have pointed attention to the legal industry’s gender parity problem. First, a report from Major Lindsey & Africa that surveyed more than 2,100 law partners showed a 44 percent pay gap between men and women. Then, the New York City Bar Association released data from 75 law firms that illustratedlackluster progress on the gender divide: In 2015, women made up 19.7 percent of those firms partners, up only slightly from 19.4 percent in 2014.

“In 20 years, we would be 30 percent women partners, if we keep going at this pace,” said Gabrielle Lyse Brown, director of diversity and inclusion of the New York City Bar Association, as she presented the group’s findings at an event in Manhattan on Thursday.

At the event co-hosted by Mayer Brown and the ABA Journal, Brown gave a PowerPoint presentation to set the table: Of the 75 law firms in the NYC Bar Association’s report, 75 percent of partners were white men, 17 percent were white women, two percent were women of color and five percent were men of color. Meanwhile, associates were more diverse: white men made up 44 percent of associates, white women made up 30 percent, women of color made up 14 percent and men of color made up 12 percent.

In the face of such glacial progress on achieving gender parity in the legal profession, the event was held to discuss problems that impede the development and promotion of women to senior positions and next steps that law firms can implement to move forward.

Conduct Exit Interviews

“I think the major issue that big firms confront when it comes to women and diverse candidates is attrition,” said Lisa Ferri, a Mayer Brown partner who is co-chair of the firm’s women’s leadership committee.

“We lose excellent candidates every year, and because of that, we don’t have a pipeline,” said Ferri. “As much interest that we have and we talk about how we want to increase women in the partnership and leadership roles, if we don’t have the women in the firm, that can’t happen.”

To address the issue, Ferri said that Mayer Brown has made a point to conduct exit interviews with departing lawyers to understand why they have gone on to other opportunities.

“We certainly do see a lot of women rejecting a law firm for a thought that something is better in-house, or somewhere else that fits them. Digging deeper into the conversation, you feel that they didn’t feel they had a future in the firm and they didn’t realize how well-liked their work was in a group.”

Build a Book of Business

Adrienne Gonzalez, senior counsel in Bristol-Myers Squibb’s litigation and government investigations group, said developing a book of business is paramount to success.

“You are not going to get to partner if you don’t have business,” said Gonzalez.” Everybody was not meant to be a law firm partner. Even if the structure is changed, every lawyer was not meant to be a partner, and that’s OK — that’s not on the firm or the lawyer, it is what it is.”

But Gonzalez said that the law firm has a responsibility to equip lawyers to be successful.

She said that one common problem women and diverse partners run into is feeling isolated after making partner: “If they don’t have business, those folks feel more isolated because there is no sympathy in the associate ranks. They say, ‘What are you whining about? You made partner.’ And the people who made them partner now view them as competition. So they are on an island.”

Gonzalez said the key to retaining diverse and women attorneys is making sure they don’t get stranded. For instance, Bristol-Myers has a program that gives business to select women and diverse junior lawyers, who are chosen by its outside law firm and have a shot at partnership.

Gonzalez said that Bristol-Myers covers the cost of an executive coach for a year that helps the attorney develop and learn how to make it as a partner.

“If you have $20 million in business, you have a certain amount of power in any firm,” said Gonzalez. “It may be a sliding scale, but you reach a certain threshold, and they say, ‘You have a say in this conversation because you’re contributing to keeping the lights on.’”

Men Need to Be Involved in the Process

Nate Saint-Victor, an in-house lawyer at Morgan Stanley, encouraged more men to get involved in women’s issues.

“Is it really a culture, or is it a cult?” he said of diversity programs at law firms and in-house law departments.

Saint-Victor recalled having dinner next to a chief legal officer at a Fortune 50 company and bragged about how he had “the grit and courage” to spend time mentoring a woman in his group. But Saint-Victor was quickly grounded, when the chief legal officer responded, “Yeah, you can call that courageous, but it’s really an obligation. It should be pasted to the back of your eyelids and part of your authenticity.”

He also encouraged attending law conferences to network: “We make enough money to allocate some [lawyers] to go to those.”

Change the Law Firm System

Ferri, the partner at Mayer Brown, said that to achieve better diversity, there needs to be a systematic change in how law firms govern themselves.

“Law firms and companies run very differently,” said Ferri. “Companies generally are more diverse in terms of their style, their feel, their customers. For instance, a Google is a much different company than a General Motors or General Electric. Companies often times do reflect their customers or clients.”

She added, “Law firms, particularly big law firms, were created by men, white men, 100 years ago or so, so we are very different. We are stuck in that model: women or diverse attorneys are being asked to function or thrive within this system that wasn’t created for us. It wouldn’t be the way they created it if we did it today, but it’s the situation in the firms, which we have to recognize.”

“My perspective is that we do wonderful things, as far as diversity training and other groups, but it isn’t getting to the problem. The problem isn’t with the women, the problem is with the structure, the firm, the system. All the talk we do in terms of helping women and other diverse attorneys with leadership — women and coaching — all of that may be helpful and help us talk to each other and grow, but it’s a short-term solution. It’s not getting us to where we want to be in terms of parity in the firm.”

Ferri said that law firms will need to change the way they compensate and promote partners to achieve gender parity.

She pointed to the National Football League’s Rooney rule, which requires teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching and other senior positions. She said that law firms should adopt a Mansfield rule (after Arabella Mansfield, the first female attorney in the U.S.), to require firm leaders to consider women and diverse attorneys for leadership positions. In an interview after the panel, Ferri said that she intends on lobbying for such a rule at Mayer Brown.

Have an idea on how to address the legal profession’s diversity problem? Write to us at BigLawBusiness@bna.com.

[caption id="attachment_32418" align="alignnone” width="640"][Image “diversity-event2" (src=https://bol.bna.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/diversity-event2-e1477003357600.jpg)]Left to right: Nate Saint-Victor, executive director in the legal and compliance division of Morgan Stanley; Adrienne Gonzalez, senior counsel in Bristol-Myers Squibb’s litigation and government investigations group; Arin Reeves, president of Nextions LLC, Lisa Ferri, Mayer Brown partner and co-chair of the global women’s leadership committee; Gabrielle Lyse Brown, director of diversity and inclusion at the New York City Bar Association. Photo Courtesy of Mayer Brown.[/caption]

[Image “blb newsletter” (src=https://bol.bna.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/blb-newsletter.jpg)]

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