Best Law Firms for Women Lawyers

Every year Working Mother Magazine publishes a survey of the NAFE / Flex-time Lawyers 50 Best Law Firms For Women Lawyers in the United States.

This year there is a noticeable shift away from maternity leave policies and flexible work arrangements towards preparing women for leadership roles especially around business development. This is an interesting trend and may signal a new phase that women lawyers and their firms are entering.

The founder of Flextime Lawyers, Deborah Epstein Henry, notes that women lawyers have been waiting to achieve critical mass in the profession on the assumption that the sheer weight of numbers will drive change. However, with women lawyers forming thirty-six percent of the profession in Canada (and a third is often considered critical mass in sociological terms) there has not been sufficient change to encourage more women to stay in private practice.

The real challenge is not simply increasing (and retaining) women in the profession and expecting change to evolve. More importantly, there is the need to have more women in leadership positions in law firms as partners, members of management and compensation committees and as practice group leaders. Change will only happen, not when there are higher percentages of women in the profession but when women have achieved critical mass in leadership positions.

In past years, this survey has not been helpful to Canadian lawyers as the best US firms inevitably won if they offered more than the meager 10 weeks of maternity leave provided by American law for those in the public sector or who work for companies of more than seventy-five employees. The 2012 survey, released this past December, shows an average of 15 weeks of maternity leave being offered by these more generous fifty firms. However, the average number of weeks taken is still just 11 weeks. The United States continues to hold the worst record in the western world for providing adequate parental leave. Canadian law guaranteeing that a job must be held for a year of maternity leave is something American women can only dream about.

The fifty best law firms are primarily large firms located in major cities such as Washington, DC and Chicago. The statistics are encouragingly higher in every category over 2011 and up significantly since the survey started in 2007. However, women in these best firms comprise only 18% of equity partners (the national average is 15%) and 20% of managing partners (up from 16% in 2007).

Women continue to lag alarmingly in business development. Only five firms (11%) had three women amongst their top ten rainmakers; 31% had two women; 31% had just one woman and a worrying 31% had no women lawyers amongst the top ten rainmakers.

All fifty firms sponsor networking events specifically for their women lawyers and clients. Increasingly, they are offering mentoring, coaching and training specifically aimed at assisting their female associates compete for clients in what is still primarily a male corporate world.

One of the main focuses of the survey remains, not surprisingly, on flexible work arrangements. All of the fifty firms offer some form of flexible arrangement including reduced hour arrangements for equity partners (97%). However, the numbers are still low for lawyers on reduced hours gaining admittance to equity partnership in the first place.

The most interesting part of the survey is the emphasis the top fifty firms have on developing future partners and leaders. Almost all of the firms (96%) provide management and leadership training for all their lawyers as well as mentoring circles for their women lawyers. These groups – variously called “affinity groups” or “employee resource groups” (used extensively in large corporations with large numbers of employees) can also be formed for LGBT lawyers or lawyers from different cultural backgrounds, to give other examples.

A Mentoring Circle for women associates allows women to provide support and guidance to each other on everything from ramping up a practice after returning from maternity leave to business development to maintaining resiliency when a lawyer isn’t getting any sleep with small children. While some women lawyers will informally get together to talk through these issues, a Mentoring Circle is more effective when the law firm sponsors it.

Sponsorship can be a strong signal that the firm wants their women lawyers to succeed. The cost is minimal, usually supplying lunch or dinner in the boardroom or paying for outside speakers occasionally on topics that the group has identified. Often partners attend when asked. These groups are more effective when they draw up an agenda of topics to be discussed and have someone facilitate the meeting. It is important as well to have time to socialize as forming stronger friendships at work is one of the best ways that women feel connected to their law firm.

Another idea borrowed from the corporate world is appointing Diversity Champions for the firm or for each practice group in larger firms. One firm on the survey list publishes a directory of all lawyers who have worked with a flexible work arrangement or on reduced hours so that those considering asking for greater flexibility can learn from those who have experience making this work.

The Best Law Firms For Women list includes a number of firms who have received a Gold Standard Certification Award from a new organization called the Women In Law Empowerment Forum (WILEF). This organization was founded in 2007 and is dedicated to helping women lawyers in the largest law firms and corporate legal departments become leaders in the workplace.

It is encouraging to see law firms move beyond maternity policies and flexible work arrangements (as important as these are) to developing ways to develop women as leaders. If we are to see more women stay in private practice and see real change in law firms that will benefit both men and women, we need to have more women in positions of power who can champion change. These fifty best law firms for American women show that change is not only possible but profitable as well.

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