Does Chicago Tout the Largest Population of Female Managing Partners?

Jan. 14, 2016, 7:42 PM

Last week, Big Law Business published a story about how the ranks of female law firm chairs are growing — as well as their dinner gatherings, an initiative formed to exchange industry information and discuss the challenges of leading some of the country’s largest firms.

Well, it turns out that they weren’t the only women lawyers who formally organize to bond and share stories about battle scars from Big Law.

In Chicago, a group of female managing partners who either manage offices or whole firms in the Windy City, similarly congregates on a quarterly basis to share their leadership experiences.

Called WOMP, for women office managing partners, the group added at least two additional lawyers to the ranks last year: Rebecca Eisner, who was promoted to managing partner of Mayer Brown’s Chicago office in July, and Linda Coberly, who was promoted to office managing partner of Winston & Strawn in November.

The growth in the group prompted a research project: In December, Mayer Brown and Winston compiled data from National Law Journal, Crain’s and other legal trade and business publications, and made an extraordinary claim: with the addition of Rebecca and Linda to the group in Chicago, the city has more women leading Big Law offices than any other city in the top 10 U.S. legal markets.

Here’s the methodology they used, according to a Mayer Brown spokeswoman: The firms looked at the top 10 legal markets, as defined by The National Law Journal in 2015: — Chicago, New York, Dallas, Houston, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Boston and Atlanta.

Then, the firms researched the largest 25 law firms by headcount in each of those markets, based on data drawn from Crain’s and other publications, and found that Chicago had eight women managing an office — more than they found in the other markets.

We reached out to Linda and Rebecca, the newly minted Chicago office managing partners, and asked them a range of questions about their personal journey climbing the ranks of Big Law, which we hope will serve as a resource for other junior lawyers trying to forge their own paths.

Below is a transcript of our written exchanges.

Big Law Business: Tell us about your journey that led you to become office managing partner.

Eisner: I was inspired to be a lawyer while working in government affairs at The Dow Chemical Company in Midland, Michigan, where my job required knowledge of certain laws and regulations that were important to the company. I joined Mayer Brown in 1989. From 1993-1995, I worked in-house as Associate Group Counsel and Assistant Vice President at Equifax, Inc. in Atlanta. I re-joined Mayer Brown in 1996, working part-time through 2004, and full-time thereafter. In 2000, the firm promoted me to equity partner, while working part-time, and while on maternity leave. As a senior partner in the firm’s Business & Technology Sourcing group, I help clients with complex global sourcing and technology transactions, cloud computing, data protection, cybersecurity and privacy matters. In 2013, I was elected by the partnership to the firm’s Global Partnership Board, a global committee of 13 partners charged with oversight of the management committee, partner compensation and firm strategy. That position served as a springboard to my current role as partner-in-charge of our largest office, with 350 attorneys in Chicago.

Coberly: I joined Winston in 2004 to start the firm’s appellate practice. Although Winston’s lawyers had done great appellate work over the years — including our Chairman Emeritus, former Governor Jim Thompson, a great advocate in his own right — there was a great deal of interest at that time in forming a distinct appellate practice to offer to clients. It has been a great fit for me. As I suspected, the same clients who come to Winston for its reputation as an elite trial lawyer’s firm tend to be equally sophisticated about appellate expertise.

Several years ago, I began to take on a greater role in management. In addition to serving as chair of the appellate practice, I was nominated and elected to the firmwide Executive Committee, and I took on a greater leadership role in gender diversity initiatives and other committees within the firm. Then recently, our firmwide managing partner Tom Fitzgerald asked me to take on the role of Chicago Managing Partner.

[caption id="attachment_6779" align="alignleft” width="321"][Image “Linda Coberly, managing partner of Winston & Strawn’s Chicago office. " (src=https://bol.bna.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Coberly-e1452800232401.png)]Linda Coberly, managing partner of Winston & Strawn’s Chicago office.[/caption]

Big Law Business: Looking back at your career, to what would you attribute your trajectory?

Eisner: There were three critical junctures in my career that led me to this point, each of which I attribute to valued mentors. First, when I returned to Mayer Brown in 1996 after an interlude of working in-house, I wanted to work part-time. I had assumed this meant that I could not be a partner. After several years, the then-Chairman of my firm, former Illinois Attorney General Ty Fahner, said to me “Why are you not a partner here?” He and other mentors at the firm supported me in my journey. Other firms and companies can learn from this example – if you can provide flexibility to associates and counsel at times in their lives when they need breathing room for family or other personal reasons, without permanently knocking them off track, you will be rewarded with keeping valuable talent who will be extremely loyal.

Next, a few years ago, a highly respected partner encouraged me to run for election to the Mayer Brown’s Global Partnership Board. I had a lot of views on firm strategy and management, and he and I had regularly discussed our views. Though I was concerned about failing to be elected, I considered how many other well-respected partners (mostly male) had run for election, and had lost. They had tried and failed and were no worse for their losses. I took the risk, won the election, and served on the firm’s Global Partnership Board. Being on the Partnership Board gave me management experience for my current leadership role.

Finally, with the support and encouragement of our current Chairman, Paul Theiss, and our Managing Partner, Ken Geller, the firm asked me to accept the role of Partner in Charge.

Coberly: For one thing, nothing motivates me more than the feeling that I am being underestimated. When I had my oldest daughter 16 years ago, my husband and I were both working hard at big law firms. I decided to pursue a reduced hours arrangement, and I worked on that basis for about 10 years. This started in the 1990s, when there were very few women who had succeeded in that kind of arrangement over the long term. Many of the men I was working with at the time assumed that I would stop working altogether at some point--or that my career would stall out. I had no patience with those kinds of assumptions, and I refused to accept them as limitations. In the end, I was promoted to income partner, made the lateral shift to Winston, was promoted to capital partner, and was elected to the Executive Committee--all while working reduced hours. I was a productive member of the firm then, and I’m a productive member of the firm now, working full time again. And I still love my work. I hope that my story can help show others what’s possible over the long term.

Big Law Business: Why do you think Chicago has more office managing partners than other markets?

Eisner: It’s difficult to answer the question of why Chicago has more women in leadership positions. In the case of Mayer Brown, however, the firm has a long history of women leaders. In the 1990s, for example, Debora de Hoyos (who happened to be based in Chicago) served as the managing partner of the entire firm. It was truly ground-breaking then for a major law firm to have a female managing partner. Now in the new millennium, we have seen more women appointed to positions of leadership in big law firms than ever before. In Chicago, there may be something of a domino effect – the more women who assume positions of leadership, the easier it is for others to imagine women as leaders, and even more women then take the opportunity to lead. Let’s hope this domino effect continues in other cities and law firms, in company legal departments, and in board rooms.

Coberly: I’m not sure what it is about the Chicago market, but it does seem to be a leader in this respect. Chicago is the home of one of the pioneer female leaders in Big Law — Debora deHoyos, who was named in the early 1990s to serve as firmwide managing partner of Mayer Brown. Then Susan Levy became firmwide managing partner of Jenner & Block, another Chicago-born firm. More recently, with many Chicago-based firms making the transition to being truly international, they have recognized the need for more active leadership for the Chicago office in particular, which for many firms (including Winston) remains the oldest and largest. And now several firms have named women partners to those key roles.

In a sense, progress in gender diversity is contagious. When one firm makes visible progress, people notice — whether those people are clients, competitors, recruits, or younger lawyers within the same firm. Having women adequately represented in leadership positions communicates a meaningful commitment to diversity and shows younger women that they can achieve long-term success at the firm. And given that diversity is really a talent issue, it’s not that surprising to see firms competing with one another to achieve it.

Big Law Business: Is looking at the office managing partner position really an accurate way to gauge power/leadership? My understanding is that it’s more about administrative tasks than anything and the managing partners don’t necessarily need a big book of business.

Eisner: At Mayer Brown, partners appointed to leadership positions embody the principles that we want our partners to follow. Our firm leaders are successful in their own right, including through generating business. They are both managers and producers. They have achieved success in excellent client service through collaboration and shared success.

A partner with a substantial book of business, however, does not necessarily make the best leader and manager of professionals. It is far easier to make decisions and to impose them on partners when you are a big rainmaker and you can dictate your views and your will to others. It is far more difficult to lead by building consensus and convincing people to take the actions that they need to take, and to accomplish the shared goals that we have. That is our leadership model, and that is what I am challenged to do every day in this role.

I am not the biggest rainmaker at the firm — I am a successful partner who has built a well-recognized and revenue-generating business with my partners at the firm through collaboration and hard work — together. Yes, there is a small part of the job that involves “administrivia”. There is also a larger portion of the job, working with our practice leaders, that involves an opportunity to inspire, to drive change, to persuade partners to be better, individually and collectively.

[caption id="attachment_6780" align="aligncenter” width="629"][Image “Rebecca Eisner, managing partner of Mayer Brown’s Chicago office. " (src=https://bol.bna.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Eisner-e1452800333992.png)]Rebecca Eisner, managing partner of Mayer Brown’s Chicago office.[/caption]

Coberly: There was a time when many law firms handed out department and office leadership positions as a trophy--simply as a way to recognize and reward the biggest producers. I am happy to say that our firm, at least, has moved away from that model. The biggest rainmakers may or may not have the time, interest, or leadership skills to be truly effective leaders. And given the complexity of big firm practice, the leaders really do need to lead. So the office leaders in our firm tend to be people who have leadership skills, as well as a successful practice (which may or may not be among the firm’s largest).

It’s certainly true that this job entails a fair number of administrative tasks. But I see that as a relatively small part of the job. Being an office managing partner is and should be a true leadership position, with responsibility for leading the lawyers, the staff, and the operations of the office. Those are all shared responsibilities, of course; for example, our Chief Administrative Officer has the bulk of the responsibility for managing the many great people who make our firm work administratively. But there are more than 600 people in our office--half lawyers and half non-lawyers--and they all work best if they feel they are part of a cohesive, respectful, and constructive community. Everyone in the office needs to know that we’re all pulling in the same direction and are all critical to the firm’s success, in different ways. A significant part of my job is to foster that kind of environment office-wide.

Big Law Business: What are the biggest challenges facing women advancing in law?

Eisner: Only 16.8% of Am Law 200 equity partners are female. According to one industry estimate, it will be 2181 before there is gender parity among Big Law equity partners. I know that these dismal figures are not because women attorneys do not want the same opportunities for success as male colleagues. I attend far too many events and conferences in which the audiences are all women talking about how to help women succeed. There is value (and comfort) in female networking. But we are missing half of the audience when women only talk to each other about making this happen.

Law firms and companies need to recognize that women attorneys need mentoring, coaching and prompting to succeed in the world of law that was historically created by, and continues to be run largely by, men. The stakes are already higher for female attorneys – there are fewer of us to support and mentor each other. At times, it can feel as if we have to fight just to prove that we belong here. If men do not engage with women in this conversation and in finding solutions, we will all fail together. Firm and company leaders must take an active role in encouraging the men in their organizations to make this a priority. You can do this by encouraging involvement and rewarding (and compensating) colleagues for contributing to the success and development of female attorneys. Attorneys who are successful at mentoring female attorneys should coach others on how to do the same.

Coberly: Time and short-sightedness. For most women--and now, increasingly, for most men as well--it is likely that there will be one or more periods in the course of a career where it may be necessary to pull back a little bit to be more available for family. There was a time when firms looked at this in very black-and-white terms, simply accepting the idea that a certain number of women would leave the practice because “it’s just too hard” to balance law practice and family life. I have never accepted that premise; I think the reason women have historically left law practice in greater numbers is that they do not believe they have real long-term prospects at the firm that would make it worthwhile to stick with it during the years where it can be really difficult. Ultimately, you have to look at your own career — and the careers of the next generation of lawyers in general, both men and women — with a long-term perspective. Just because my working schedule and priorities have changed over time doesn’t mean I am not committed to my career and the practice of law over the long term.

At Winston, we’re working hard to live this out, changing how we provide support to new parents when they need it, over the longer arc of their careers. And we’re also working hard on recruiting, mentoring, developing, sponsoring, and promoting women and minority candidates at all levels of the practice. Again, this is a talent issue, and we see it as critical to our success going forward.

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