Women in Law Firm Leadership Positions, Part I

Law firms’ ramped-up efforts in recent years to increase gender diversity are beginning to pay off. As more women are promoted into leadership roles (but still are underrepresented), individual firms and the broader legal profession are reaping the benefits. So, what is it like at the top? And how can female interested in a law firm management career, whether just starting out or well on their way, successfully make the climb? In this two-part roundtable discussion, six women in prominent law firm positions explore the opportunities and challenges facing women lawyers today and offer practical advice for achieving success.

Our Moderator

Nicholas Gaffney (NG) is 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 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 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 chief administrative officer for the Legal & Compliance Department at Credit Suisse First Boston.
Ginger M. Wilson (GW), 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: Are women appropriately represented in leadership positions at law firms?

SC: It really varies among law firms. It has been exciting to see an increase in the number of female partners on management/executive committees and leading offices, practice groups or important firm functions. When I took on the executive director role almost four years ago, I attended a conference with other EDs/COOs and was pleasantly surprised to count a number of women at the helm of top New York and international law firms. The one group of leaders that will hopefully grow over time is women (and men) of color.

LL: While there are plenty of statistics out there on the proportion of female to male attorneys, and female attorneys in leadership roles, there’s not necessarily much research specifically on non-lawyers in legal leadership positions. What we do know is that the number of women in leadership positions overall is growing. That said, a large gap still exists across industry sectors, including in the legal industry. Until 50% of managing partners and C suite individuals are women, I think the answer has to be no.

PM: Not yet. Since women partners currently represent on average 20% of law firm partners, not enough women are available to be significantly represented in leadership. There is still work to do. The good news is that more and more high-end clients are demanding more diverse representation from their law firms. In years past, client pressure was somewhat limited to those generating the type of work not everyone wanted (i.e., commoditized, low fee-generating work). But now, very high-end clients are starting to get more involved in these types of women’s initiatives. Take, for example, JPMorgan Chase, which recently joined up with a number of law firms to boost women’s roles on litigation teams. With that type of client pressure, and with more high-end clients driving this demand, change will follow.

GW: No, but I believe the statistics are improving. Often, you first see it in mid-level director and practice group leader roles. The influence seems to come from the outside in. Like so many other advances, our clients dictate how we grow the firm to support their needs. As the number of women leaders in business and in-house general counsel continues to climb, there is a demand that the professional services firms they retain mirror those demographics. Bloomberg’s Big Law Business reported, “In 2016, 35 percent of new Fortune 500 general counsel jobs were filled by women, whereas in 2012, women made up only 24 percent of new hires, according to an advance copy of the study provided to Big Law Business.”

SS: Typically not. Despite the fact that record numbers of women have graduated from law school and entered the legal profession, the movement towards leadership has been slow to reflect women’s participation in the law profession. Very often, female associates choose other career paths, they may choose to leave the workforce once children arrive, and perhaps most commonly, their ability to spend time pursuing a leadership track takes third or fourth place behind family and everyday legal work.

ET: No. Absolutely not. Granted, the quantity and role of women at firms have improved since the 1970s and 1980s, and times before that, when women were an extreme minority if not an anomaly sometimes confused for a secretary or a receptionist. How bad was it then? According to the American Bar Association, in 1980, men outnumbered women 92%-8% in the legal profession. A decade later, the breakdown improved to 80%-20% and then 73%-27% ten years later. But today, even though women are 50% of law school graduates, they comprise just under 35% of lawyers at firms. Obviously, the overall trend is improving, but this is change at an unacceptably glacial pace.

When it comes to women in leadership positions, the numbers are even more disturbingly inequitable. Women’s share of equity partnerships—the focal point of firm compensation and authority—remains just a slowly increasing 20%. And even among the best-ranked nationwide law firms for women, women holding executive/management committee and compensation/finance committee seats registered at only 27-28%. Many of those acclaimed firms are either regional firms or specialty shops with practices such as immigration, labor, and employment or family law. For big firms and non-ranked firms, these unimpressive numbers are even lower, with women boxed into lower-ranking, lesser-paying jobs.

Across the board, law firms are consistently ranked as one of the worst industries when it comes to hiring and retaining a diverse workforce. The numbers tell the story: we need more women, and we need more women in positions of influence.

NG: How does having women in leadership positions affect a law firm’s culture?

SC: The law firm where I work has a dynamic culture built on mutual respect, collaboration and inclusion. Having a leadership team that includes women reinforces these values. It also ensures that a diversity of ideas, perspectives, and leadership styles are represented, which studies have shown, lead to better business outcomes.

LL: Leaders set the culture for any company. By having female leaders at Verrill Dana, we are exemplifying the firm’s mission for gender diversity and the growth opportunities that exist for all, regardless of gender. I also believe that the gradual shift toward alternative ways of working, such as flexible work arrangements, is due, in part, to women in leadership positions who have pushed for changes to traditional, structured work schedules and office environments.

At Verrill Dana, we are in the unique position that we have not only been ranked one of the top law firms in the nation for both the number of female attorneys in general and the proportion of female equity partners but also more than half of our senior administration are female. Many of the firm’s practice and committee chairs are also women.

GW: Law firms, like any organization, benefit from having diversity and varying perspectives, especially in leadership positions. To have only one demographic at the top would be like leading from an echo chamber. We learn from people who think differently than we do. Look at Silicon Valley—or millennials—who have flipped conventional thinking on its head. We must broaden our understanding and anticipate potential reactions to the decisions we make and the strategies we deploy by having a variety of stakeholders in the room. Women leaders have a unique perspective and many know how to inspire future women leaders, in a way that sometimes men (as talented as they are) simply can’t.

SS: Women bring both subtle but substantive cultural shifts to leadership positions in every industry or market sector, and law is no exception. Women in leadership roles bring a unique perspective to the job. They understand the challenges that are specific to women lawyers at every stage of their careers and work to create cultures that help both women and men succeed by being more inclusive, collaborative, transparent and supportive of a true work-life balance.

Women also tend to be good at collaborating and communicating, and value cultures that welcome contributions and feedback. In addition, women leaders have a unique opportunity to create cultures that open doors—doors that weren’t necessarily swung wide open to them as they were advancing. They’re more apt to be active role models and mentors and to create environments that ‘hold the door open’ for women rising through the ranks behind them.

ET: The business model of law firm partnerships—undeterred devotion to work, strict adherence to high billable hours quotas, and extremely structured full-time roles providing minimal time off—was set up by and for the benefit of men in an era when female attorneys were scarce or non-existent. With the advent of women attorneys in the legal workforce in recent decades, that antiquated model has required and will continue to require alteration and flexibility, which likely will be slow if not impossible to implement without the presence of women in key leadership roles. Despite the recent increase in “house husbands,” women still tend to carry more household and family responsibilities than men, which often requires more flexible working arrangements such as maternity leave, working remotely, or perhaps even reduced/flexible hours to ensure work/life balance and attention to child-rearing duties. More women in leadership roles will help acknowledge and address these needs.

More women at firms’ upper echelons will also provide many useful benefits within their firms. First, by their presence and expertise, they will provide inspiring role models to emulate and offer key mentoring rules for more female attorneys. Like-minded souls tend to empathize more with and assist other like-minded souls, and this would certainly be true for women at today’s firms and would be especially true for minority women, which currently comprise only 2% of equity partners. When employees of any stripe at law firms experience professional or personal issues they tend to reach out for advice to people with similar experiences in similar situations. Just as men have thrived for years in corporate situations by bonding with other men, women would likewise benefit from the presence of other women at all levels, but especially in leadership roles.

NG: Did you encounter any challenges or preferences in getting to your current position, and do you continue to experience any challenges or advantages because of your gender?

SC: I can’t say that any challenges I’ve experienced related to my gender. Fortunately, at my firm, there are and have been senior leaders on both the legal and general staff side, including in areas that are usually led by men such as finance and operations. However, when you are the only woman in the room, it can be to your advantage because you will stand out. What you say and do is likely to be remembered. It is an opportunity to make a good lasting impression.

LL: Not particularly. When I came to the firm in 2010, I had come from 10 years in the public accounting world where there is a large female presence. I had several female role models over the years who helped me to realize that knowledge, experience, interpersonal skills, and business sense are not gender specific. I also came to realize that you don’t need to be able to swing a golf club to strengthen your business network. At Verrill Dana, we have several female partners and women on the senior administration team, and the tone from the top is that women are treated with the same respect as men. Gender just doesn’t enter into the equation, from my vantage point.

GW: I would challenge any woman in leadership who would answer this question with anything other than a resounding, “Yes, of course, I did.” But that didn’t make me feel burdened or victimized. I knew I would have to work harder, better and smarter to get ahead. That’s been the case in every leadership role I have held. You must immediately demonstrate that “you belong” at the table. It’s a delicate balance of deference and assertiveness, knowing when and how to take action. If you are able to establish your credibility early, typically, the professional respect will follow. But it’s not easy. It’s work. The questioning yourself and feelings of defeat need to happen off-stage. That’s when you reach out for help to the women who came before you, our mentors, our trusted advisors.

ET: I definitely encountered sexism early in my career. Partly this was due to my youth and inexperience, and partly this was due to the times, which were much less conducive to accepting and mentoring women and treating them with respect. But as the times have changed for women’s role in business and my professional and educational accomplishments have expanded, this has become less and less of an issue.

When I encounter friction or roadblocks these days, it tends to be age-related more than gender-specific. Sometimes this is due to the analog vs. digital life experiences of the boomer vs. millennial generations, leading to situations when some professionals are biased against older workers, assuming they would not have the energy, interest, enthusiasm, or aptitude to relate to and be able to function in our increasingly digital environment. Obviously, both older men and older women can be subject to and harmed by this bias, both while employed and while seeking employment. But, women can potentially face even tougher sledding on this, once you factor in that older women can potentially and do face more discrimination based on their overall appearance than men.


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