Women in Law Firm Leadership Positions, Part II

In Part I of this roundtable discussion, six prominent women leaders discussed the opportunities and challenges facing women in the legal profession today, and in the future. That discussion continues in this month’s roundtable.

Our Moderator

Nicholas Gaffney (NG) is the founder of Zumado Public Relations in San Francisco, CA and is a member of the Law Practice Today Editorial Board. Contact him at ngaffney@zumado.com or on Twitter @nickgaffney.

Our Panelists

Sharon L. Crane (SC) is a co-executive director at Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP. She is responsible for managing the firm’s global personnel and related administrative operations—including Human Resources, Benefits, Legal Recruiting and Professional Development. Before becoming a law firm administrator, she was a corporate associate at Davis Polk.
Lisa A. LaMarche (LL) is director of finance at Verrill Dana, responsible for the financial management of the firm. She supervises the firm’s accounting department and oversees the day-to-day administration of all key processes and functions of the department. As a member of the firm’s senior administration team, Total Quality steering committee, and wellness committee, she works closely with leadership to support the various initiatives and strategic vision of the firm.
Patty Morrissy (PM) is the managing director at MLegal. She served for seven years as the chief recruiting officer at Sullivan & Cromwell. During her tenure there, she led a number of talent-related initiatives. Before S&C, she served as recruiting director at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, and as the chief administrative officer for the Legal & Compliance Department at Credit Suisse First Boston.
Ginger M. Wilson (GW), the chief operating officer at Wendel, Rosen, Black & Dean LLP, has honed her expertise in culture change and organizational development in the healthcare and the legal industries. Currently, she oversees Wendel Rosen’s operational infrastructure, business development, and strategic planning.
Stacey J. Sinclair (SS) is chief operating officer and partner at Archer Law. As COO, Stacey has overall administrative management the firm’s more than 200 attorneys in nine offices. In addition, she continues to practice in the areas of complex litigation, including product liability matters, with a specific focus on the environmental issues facing the petroleum industry.
Ellen Taverner Ph.D. (ET) is the chief of staff at Joseph Saveri Law Firm, Inc., a boutique litigation practice in San Francisco. In this role, she oversees a number of key functions within the firm, including finance, marketing, business development, human resources, legal support, recruiting, training and development, and knowledge management. Ellen was previously CMO at Cooley Godward Kronish LLP, VP of International Marketing at the Nasdaq Stock Market, and director of global corporate communication at Credit Suisse Asset Management. She earned her Ph.D. in Organizational Psychology from Alliant International University in 2017.


NG: Has the recent media coverage of workplace sexual harassment sparked discussion/change related to women in leadership roles at law firms?

LL: Not specifically, since we are already well on our way here with women in leadership roles at Verrill Dana. It’s gratifying to see a greater focus on encouraging women in corporate America to find their voice, take their seat at the table and not apologize. Women tend to be more collaborative program-solvers, which is our asset, but it can mean that we don’t always advocate for ourselves as strongly as we should. We accept conditions that male counterparts might not.

PM: For some male partners in law firms, the media attention has created more questions than it has answered. No law firm is immune from bad actors, but for all the good guys, more than ever, they are loathe to create any situation that may be misconstrued as taking advantage of a power dynamic that may risk an accusation of sexual harassment. So for instance, the thinking goes, if I invite a women colleague to lunch to discuss a case or matter, or to simply build our working relationship by getting to know each other better, am I opening myself up to the risk of a lawsuit? Will these men decide that it is simply worth avoiding any activity that is open to such misinterpretation? Will male partners simply stop asking women to join them for lunch? What will this mean for the mentorship of women and their ability to develop new business? Will women’s chances of developing networking relationships be hindered? One thing is for sure: demand for labor and employment lawyers who advise corporations and other law firms on workplace discrimination is on the rise.

GW: Yes. Even as law firms, we are not immune. This is an opportunity for all of us to review our firm culture and communicate loudly who we are and what we stand for. I try to avoid using absolutes and gender bias, but sometimes the reactions are too disparate not to. I have witnessed smart, thoughtful, talented men who simply “don’t get it.” As women in leadership, we have an obligation to help them get it. This is real. Not just in terms of our legal obligations to provide a harassment-free workplace, but we need to take actionable steps to demonstrate our desire to change and foster an environment for women to grow and thrive in their careers.

ET: In a boutique firm such as mine and similar ones in the legal world, this likely is not as much of an issue as at the larger firms. That is not to say that sexual harassment cannot occur in a small firm environment, but larger firms dealing with more stratified hierarchy are more prone to these situations. And, these firms need to take many more proactively mandated steps in planning for, training employees on, and dealing appropriately with sexual harassment, both in responding to developing situations and preventing future ones from occurring.

Sexual harassment in any workplace, but especially law (our field deals with illegality, right?), is a serious issue that needs any and all efforts to be eliminated. But, a “sister issue” to this that fails to get as much publicity but is equally as troubling is “economic harassment” towards women. Several major firms in recent years, nationwide and in San Francisco, have been named in lawsuits alleging gender pay disparity for either associates or partners. Groping, coarse language, and other extreme forms of harassment tend to get more play with the media and are more “sexy” topics for televised panel discussions and water cooler conversations. But, pay disparity based on gender is equally as troubling. It takes place in a more elusive, under-the-radar fashion on a balance sheet or a pay stub, and it is not always easily reduced to sound bites. But, it cuts at the economic potential for female attorneys, with reduced earning potential that has ripple effects on their families. If law firms expect equal capabilities, commitment, and results from women—which they do—then equal pay must follow.

NG: What can law firms do to encourage more women to pursue leadership positions?

SC: You cannot pursue a position that you don’t know exists. Law firms should ensure that vacant leadership positions are widely broadcast and the job description is written in a gender-neutral way so as not to discourage women from even applying. Firms also can keep track of talented professionals across the organization so when positions become available they can proactively tap the individual, give them a vote of confidence and encourage them to apply. Finally, rather than just encouraging women, law firms can simply appoint women to leadership positions and watch them rise to the occasion.

LL: Think creatively about what solution best meets the need. Start with the end goal and reverse-engineer it. Too often, we try to adapt the existing set of circumstances to fit into the way things have always been done. That needs to be turned around.

PM: Most law firms have great programs in place to showcase the many paths to leadership. Of course, the amount of resources invested in such programming is key. Learning how to network, learning how to develop new business, all of these skills are key and ought to be taught. But at the end of the day, women need to want a leadership role. For this to happen, more junior lawyers need to see more women in leadership positions, so that the path appears viable. So it’s about making sure the role models are in place, accessible, and viewed as key decision makers.

GW: Engage. Ask them. Take a couple of your highest contributors (hopefully, one is a woman) and have them recruit new female leaders in your firm. Put them on the track to assume leadership roles. Be mindful of what you can do now to support and develop your firm’s women leaders on an ongoing basis, and then, take the steps to make that happen. What is your partnership criteria? Make sure you are taking action now to help women contributors meet those criteria. What is required to sit on your firm’s Executive Committee? Start grooming your strongest female partners to meet those requirements.

SS: Change takes time, but law firms can do several things to swell the ranks of women partners and leaders: First, women need real, consistent, hands-on mentoring—from women and men—that helps them effectively market themselves, make connections and develop business. Second, firms also must encourage women to be more visible at their firms, in their profession, and in their communities, and provide both the incentive and the flexibility to do so. Third, law firms need to work harder to recruit and retain women and others diverse lawyers. One way to do this is through more flexibility in terms of lawyers’ work schedules. Many women leave law firms because they can’t see tangible ways to advance while simultaneously balancing the demands of work and family. Although much has changed on the home-front, women are still the primary caregivers, juggling their careers and the bulk of family responsibilities. Greater flexibility, or lack of it, can mean all the difference in terms of being able to flourish in a career or feel forced to leave it.

ET: Obviously, law firms need to hire more women, with particular openness to minority hiring, and properly mentoring and equally paying these women as they rise through the ranks. Firms nationwide discuss and promise this, but too often fail to deliver, or do so only over long periods of time. The reality needs to match the promises.

It is equally as important for firms to develop a culture that women (and men, too) would want to aspire to and join. In this regard, my focus is on five themes:

  • Role clarity: Companies operate most effectively when its employees know what their role is and when that role is supported by management via constructive feedback, training, and appropriate expectations. Leaders also know their respective roles in dealing with each other and steering the firm in a positive direction.
  • Ego-management: Such an environment eliminates or at least reduces “The Disease of Me,” as famous basketball coach and general manager Pat Riley coined, and instead focuses on team results regardless of whose ego gets stroked, whose back gets slapped, or who gets to take the most credit for being the “top manager” or “top producer.”
  • Self-awareness: A truly on-point firm culture thrives when its leaders have and are encouraged to look inward to fully appraise their mission, strengths, weaknesses, and goals. Who are the extroverts? Who are the introverts? Are you a reclusive problem-solver or a big picture marketer or rainmaker? The best firms know what their firm is about and how their leaders slot into their best roles based on whatever expertise they bring to the table.
  • Mutual commitment: Mutual commitment underpins the first three themes. Leadership must be committed to each other, to move forward together, to resolve differences as quickly and harmoniously as possible. Looking outward, leadership must also extend, request and encourage commitment from its employees. Management with “pie in the sky” expectations and goals that fail to treat their employees with respect, fair economic compensation, and concern for work/life balance issues will find themselves repeatedly in situations where their intelligent employees will migrate, at best, or file a lawsuit at worst.
  • Operating Guidelines: Mutual commitment must also operate under a bedrock of clear operating guidelines. Management needs a shared understanding of how decisions will be discussed and implemented. Does one person make the decision or a group? What happens when conflict or even intractable disagreement arises? How does the group address and fix a decision that has headed off course? Top-notch leadership groups have a shared knowledge and understanding of how they will operate, accommodate differences, and move collectively forward in the best and worst of times. This shared knowledge can stem somewhat from adherence to written guidelines and firm tradition.

All of the above helps leadership keep their fingers on the pulse of the firm, to the benefit of all employees. This is the kind of culture that people want to join and the kind of culture in which people will be encouraged to move up in the ranks and feel that they can make a difference.

NG: What advice would you give to young female professionals aspiring for a leadership role at a law firm?

SC: Once you are working in a law firm and understand its business and culture, do more than is asked of you, volunteer or ask for stretch assignments, and demonstrate an interest in the business and areas outside of your immediate responsibility. Leaders will take notice. Also, ask for feedback and be open to advice and criticism so you can improve your skill set. Do not be daunted if you don’t see someone like you in a position you want, and don’t look in vain for a mentor or sponsor that looks just like you. The best sponsor is someone who takes an interest in you and has the ability to move your career forward. That person may very well be a man.

LL: Don’t aspire to leadership for leadership’s sake. Instead, visualize success for yourself and the company, and then follow that vision with confident authority. Those who share that vision will join you, support you, and follow your lead. That is what makes you a leader.

PM: Get involved in as many ways as you can: firm activities and committees, and bar associations. Stay in touch with your law school classmates, even if you were not best friends. Becoming a leader is all about relationships and relationship building skills. Participate in activities that will allow you to learn about the different areas of a firm and gain exposure to the partnership, both in your own geographic region and globally. You need to build long-term friendships with interactions that take shape over time. Learn what issues the organization is facing and offer ideas for solutions. As my friend Sharon Nelles at Sullivan & Cromwell once said: “The way you establish yourself as a leader is not by title, but by action.”

GW: Reach out to those who you admire and ask for an “informational interview.” It’s a form of flattery, so you need not be hesitant to ask. Research the person who you would like to learn from and be prepared to ask questions. Every woman in a senior leadership role had someone help her get there. There’s a special handshake that we make. It’s an unspoken agreement to reach back and help other young women get their footholds so that they can tap into their incredible potential that’s waiting to be unleashed.

SS: Work hard. Be persistent. Ask questions. Find out how other women have succeeded, and what mechanisms are in place at your firm to help you succeed. Find a mentor, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. And, finally, find ways to be more visible, even if it feels a little uncomfortable at first—make sure you’re getting enough face-time with clients, serve on firm committees, and help out at special events, write articles and advisories, attend meetings, and give speeches at professional and community organizations.

ET: It starts with the trite but true phrase: “Be the best that you can be.” The more effort and commitment you put into your employment, the more likely a firm—at least one that is appropriately run—will acknowledge you. Volunteer for a new task or a new case. Take an extra class or seminar that will expand your skills. Put forward your best effort, initiatives, and ideas. You will run into hurdles and setbacks, but keep pushing forward until if and when you reach one that cannot be cleared, at which time you can reevaluate your situation and seek help, if necessary. And, above all, along the way treat others at all levels with respect: you never know who could be a key ally for you at a moment you will not anticipate.

When it comes to the crunch time of negotiating for what you want, whether it be a promotion or raise or both, focus on what you want and be assertive enough to ask for it. I know from my own managerial experience regarding women negotiating salary increases that some have asked for a figure only to backtrack and either contradict or downgrade their own figure without my even have to say a word. Unbelievable! You have to stand up for yourself and have confidence in your value to the firm. You may not get some or all of what you want monetarily and professionally, but if you fail to ask for what you want or what you think is best for you, you are guaranteed not to get it. Think often about your career to date, and do an honest evaluation of your goals, your situation (both inside and outside the firm), what skills you do and can potentially bring to the table, and the relationship you have with the leaders you are dealing with. Once you have an accurate handle on those factors, ask for what you want and stand up for yourself.

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