Law Firm Women’s Initiatives: Why Most Are Ineffective and What Firms Can Do to Fix Them

Law firm women’s initiatives have been around for decades. Check out any AmLaw 200 law firm’s website and you’ll no doubt see a link, a page, or a reference to their commitment to diversity and advancement for female attorneys. Surely, after years and years of organized efforts, these initiatives must have led to great strides for women in our profession, with more and more women moving up the ladder to take leadership roles in their firms, right?

Wrong.

Even though women make up about half of law school graduating classes, and are hired at a roughly equivalent rate as young associates, female attorneys seem to vanish as years go by, and disappear almost entirely at the highest levels of law firm leadership. Consider these statistics from Law360’s 2015 Glass Ceiling Report:

  • Just 12 of the largest 100 U.S. law firms have a woman in their highest leadership position.
  • Just 22% of partners at U.S. law firms are women.
  • Of the 143 firm-wide chair and managing partner positions at the top 100 firms of the 400 largest U.S., only 15 are held by women.

It’s not surprising that most law firm women’s initiatives have effectively failed to achieve their purported goal—to attract, retain and advance women lawyers. Sometimes, those initiatives are nothing more than a nicely worded mission statement with no effort behind it at all. Most often, they fail because they are unfunded, don’t deliver real value to women lawyers or the firm, lack business development focus, or are inconsistent. Too many don’t take them seriously.

The famous definition of insanity—doing the same thing over and over again expecting to get a different result—applies to these efforts to increase the presence and influence of half of the attorneys in this country who remain woefully underrepresented in leadership roles. Something has to change.

Here are three ways we can improve the effectiveness of law firm women’s initiatives:

1. Focus on business development programming. When the primary measure of a lawyer’s long-term success is her ability to bring in clients, no women’s initiative can succeed in the absence of sufficient marketing, networking and business development training, mentoring and coaching. Women lawyers need to be included in firm-wide marketing initiatives and be involved in actual efforts to turn prospects into clients. Female lawyers should be encouraged to think of each other when it comes to business referrals, and should work together to develop creative and effective pitches.

One of the most effective ways to help women lawyers become effective business developers is through a formal coaching program. Although a traditional training-only approach is effective for lawyers to acquire new knowledge, it has been shown to be ineffective when it comes to successfully integrating new skills. Typically, within just 30 days, lawyers forget up to 91% of what they learn in training classes. In contrast, coaching, which spans over several months and incorporates hands-on experience, is the most effective method of helping them to effectively and efficiently develop new business, contribute to the firm’s growth, and maintain the leading edge as leaders.

2. Engage male lawyers as mentors and sponsors. Unless and until women compose a greater percentage of law firm leadership, the reality is that male lawyers will have a disproportionate impact on whether women’s initiatives succeed or fail. If men are invested in helping their female colleagues grow and thrive in the profession, then it will happen. If lip-service is the sum total of that investment, then the likelihood of positive outcomes is small. While women may understandably seek out other female lawyers as mentors and sponsors, they should also actively engage their male counterparts in an effort to not only gain greater insight into their perspectives, but also to encourage those men to do the same with their female protégés.

3. Help women lawyers become more visible. Success breeds success. Seeing other women forge a successful path in the profession and joining firms that clearly demonstrate their commitment to female attorneys will encourage younger lawyers. Firms should encourage them to take risks, involve them in management decisions and client-facing marketing initiatives, and facilitate their efforts to step into leadership roles within or outside of the firm. For example, serving on boards (either boards of directors or advisory boards) of start-ups is a great way for women lawyers to get involved in the business community, acquire business acumen, and connect with other business professionals in the community. Speaking or publishing are also great ways to gain visibility and recognition as industry experts, which serves well both the female lawyer and the firm.

While many law firms miss the mark when it comes to developing effective women’s initiative programs, some firms do get it right. A great example is Holland & Knight and its Rising Star Program. This year-long program focuses on “leadership, marketing, management and professional skills development, professional mentoring and experiential learning.” The main goals of the program are to help prepare participating women lawyers for “leadership opportunities, elevate their profiles within the legal profession and community, and increase their success in business development.”

Discussing her time as a young lawyer, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted that, “if you’re a male who grew up professionally in a male-dominated profession, then your image of what a good lawyer is a male image.” With a retooled effort to improve law firm women’s initiatives, that image of a good lawyer will be replaced by one that reflects the true strength and presence of women in the legal profession.

About the Author

laroeYuliya LaRoe is an attorney, certified leadership and executive coach, and co-founder of 20/20 Leadership Group (a national coaching firm focused on “seeing” lawyers and law firms to new levels of success). Yuliya can be reached at ylaroe@2020lead.com.

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