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Big Law Gender Parity Initiative Picks Up Momentum

March 10, 2016, 4:22 PM

By Laura Mahoney, Bloomberg BNA

The gender gap problem at large U.S. law firms has been well-documented, and now there’s a competition to generate creative solutions about how to resolve it.

On Wednesday Caren Ulrich Stacy, founder and CEO of Diversity Lab, announced the Women in Law Hackathon , a Shark Tank-style competition in which teams of lawyers will brainstorm ways to improve the retention and advancement of women in Big Law.

We covered the project while it was in its infancy, and now it’s starting to gain some steam.

In total, 54 law firms signed up to participate, with nearly two-thirds of participants being managing partners, practice group chairs or other high-level leaders in their respective firms, said Stacy in a release.

For the competition, they will be split into nine teams of nine — six partners, two advisers and one Stanford University law student — and present ideas on attracting and retaining experienced women in the legal profession at a two-day pitch session at Stanford in June.

Mark D. Wasserman, managing partner at Sutherland Asbill & Brennan, said his team is interviewing people at their firms as well as their clients to combine their knowledge and experience.

“The goal is to develop something new – not just conclude that we all need better training or mentoring or compensation systems (not that those are not valid thoughts),” Wasserman said in an e-mail to Big Law Business.

Seyfarth Shaw partner Brett C. Bartlett said even though he has a regular dialogue with women in his firm about advancement and gender issues, the discussions with his hackathon team so far have been “eye opening.”

Ideas so far have moved beyond how to accommodate working mothers to how a firm’s rewards or incentives are motivating men but not women, Bartlett, a partner in the firm’s labor and employment department, said.

“Let’s talk about what other rewards might work better,” he said, noting that sometimes the conversations are awkward, but worthwhile.

Anna White Erickson, managing partner at Morrison & Foerster, said in a statement that “this is the first time we have ever come together in a structured way as a community of law firms and leaders to devise a plan for closing the gender gap in law firms.”

Stacy said she is already planning a second hackathon for 2017 through her firm, Diversity Labs, where she is the founder and chief executive officer.

Although she can’t disclose the ideas that the teams are already formulating, Stacy said the intention is to go beyond existing efforts. For example, the teams can’t propose better mentoring of women in law unless they combine it with something new and innovative that could move the needle.

Only 18 percent of partners in large law firms are women, she said.

Proposals could touch on ways to address unconscious bias in hiring, performance reviews and promotions, as well as the gap in pay between men and women in similar jobs. They are also likely to involve clients.

“Clients say nonstop that we need diversity,” Stacy said. “We need to listen to them.”

At the pitch session in June, the lawyers and their advisers will present their ideas to a team of judges that includes Tony West, general counsel of PepsiCo, Lucy Endel Bassli, assistant general counsel of Microsoft and David Perla, president of Bloomberg Law. [Bloomberg Law is owned by Bloomberg BNA, which also owns Big Law Business]

Bloomberg Law will provide the top three winning teams with prize money — 1st place $10,000, 2nd place $7,500 and 3rd place $5,000 — to donate to their non-profit organization of choice that advances women in the legal profession and beyond, according to Stacy. Diversity Lab has donated another $5,000 to be awarded to a Crowd Favorite, to be chosen by the audience.

Diversity Lab and the nonprofits that receive the award money will follow up with projects and report results that come from the winning efforts, Stacy said.

More information is available here .

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