Wednesday, August 26, 2009


Recently published its list of the top 50 law firms for women that by virtue of their numbers and programs are among the best places for working-mom lawyers. The legal profession and law firm partnerships in particular have long had the image of being dominated by white men. The female enrollment demographic at law schools has really only seen an appreciable increase during the last 30 plus years so from the historical standpoint the image is not too surprising. In the modern day however law schools are fairly well balanced with many if not most law school student populations hovering at around 50% women. Law schools are the feeder candidate pools for law firms so it stands to reason that many firms are also reporting that approximately half of their incoming associate classes are women. The published data in the aforementioned top 50 law firm survey bears this out.

Steadily over the last twenty years greater emphasis has been placed on diversity in the lawyer workforce generally and more women and people of color are entering the profession. (The plethora of goodness that comes from this is well stated elsewhere and not the subject of today’s post.) The firms mentioned in the top 50 list are implementing worthy initiatives to attract, retain, and develop the incoming female talent to insure they have the tools to develop and contribute as equals. Those firms should be applauded for their results and encouraged to continue their winning ways. I am optimistic that these firms get it, and are pushing for even greater results in the years ahead.

But I am alarmed at something. Puzzled. Frustrated. Okay, downright irritated if you must know….The percentage of incoming women associates is at the 50% mark which is consistent with the available talent pool. Great. But “the best” firms average just over 20% female partners. Whoa!! That means that women are leaving law firms in droves during the formative years of their careers, and at a rate significantly higher than their male counterparts! Something more than the childbirth years is at play. This is a level of attrition among a single workforce population is way beyond explaining away by women choosing to be stay-at-home mothers. What is happening between the time of entry and the time when partnership decisions are made that is causing this huge drop in population? My sister, where are you going?

The reality is that we don’t know where these women are going. Statistics on lawyer demographics are not readily available in aggregate form for comparison or analysis. We do know from law firm surveys like this that women are leaving law firm life at a rate that will quickly deflate the progress of women in the legal profession if it is allowed to continue. If you are a law firm leader – partner, committee chair, HR – I hope you are as disturbed as I am over this situation, because it is unacceptable. A significant portion of your greatest asset, your lawyers, are leaving in droves. Your talent is walking (at this rate more like running) out the door. Your clients demand to see their matters staffed with diverse lawyers from all levels in your firm, and if that is not a message you are hearing from them now I can guarantee you will hear it when you go to develop new business. This is a situation of urgency that needs your attention.

Here’s the good news – this is a situation which has the ‘everybody wins’ potential written all over it. The recession is ripping into the traditional law firm business model and turning recruiting and retention on its head. Law firms are being forced to rethink summer program and entry level associate recruiting models because their cost and efficiency is no longer sustainable. Compensation based on billable hour production is facing opposition from in-house counsel like an oncoming train in the form of demand for fixed fees and other cost control measures. How lawyers develop professionally, demonstrate their value, gain skill and expertise, and ultimately how they are evaluated for entry into the partnership is all tied into this and is being tested. Traditional methods of training, compensating, and ultimately retaining talent are on their way out. Firms that are creative and visionary enough to develop a new strategy will come out ahead in the longer term.

If you are a law firm leader, this is the perfect time for you to examine every aspect of how you run your business and make it all that it can be. This is no time to be complacent with old ways of doing things. A *true* leader has to be willing to challenge the status quo. Competition for "the top 10%" is no longer defined by virtue of elite law school law review membership. Greatness is not defined by the logging of time any more than it relies on a person's gender or race. Dispense with the old worn out definitions of how you evaluate and promote talent and you may well uncover the potential that has been in your organization all along. This isn't just "a women's issue" that you can appoint the women in your firm to solve for themselves. It takes commitment and action from the top. It isn't something to be delegated to the firm's recruiting committee, a small handful of mentors, or the marketing department. Roll up your sleeves and make it a business priority with accountability, timetables, and measurable goals. Get creative.

Your talent base, to be attractive as service practitioners to your clients, must be as diverse as their businesses and their customers. That population is really all of us in the working world. If you are a law firm leader, the solution to your competitiveness as a firm lies in your ability to attract, retain, and foster a diverse talent base, most certainly including women. Look no farther than half of your incoming associates as the first step in the equation. As a law firm leader, you can demonstrate your true leadership by solving this dilemma. You can create a rewarding workplace replete with happy clients and hold out your firm as being a leader in the profession. Half (or more) of your incoming talent, that you worked hard to recruit, will turn over at a much lower rate and be happier and more productive. High turnover costs money, you keep that money in the bank and your profits will be more sustainable. Everybody wins.

I really really really hope when I read the survey next year that someone has moved the needle. There is so much opportunity for progress. Don’t let next year’s story be a sad déjà vu.

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