March 2014 Bar Bulletin
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March 2014 Bar Bulletin

Leaning In While Changing the Culture: Women Making Inroads to Law Firm Leadership

By Jaime Drozd Allen


Sheryl Sandberg, a Facebook executive, has started a national discussion and introduced a new vernacular, making working women everywhere ask the question, "Am I Leaning In?"1

For as much as Sandberg sheds light on this issue, her methods and solutions are debated. Most notably, Anne-Marie Slaughter, who penned the article in The Atlantic, "Why Women Still Can't Have it All,"2 and Sabrina Parsons, who explained in The Business Insider "Why Leaning In Isn't the Answer,"3 provide different insight into the dearth of female leadership and the challenges women in the workplace face going forward. Yet, the common thread of Sandberg, Slaughter and Parsons is that women in corporate America disproportionately never reach higher leadership positions and that something must change in order to see women share in the leadership of our nation's business community.

Law firms are microcosms that historically have tended to reflect the problems identified in these articles. Study after study shows that, despite over a decade of reaching parity in law school graduation rates, women lag woefully behind men when it comes to retention, promotion and pay in law firms. In some sense, the glass ceiling at law firms has been dented, but not shattered. There is a gap in our profession that needs to be addressed.

The numbers demonstrate the problem: 47 percent of law school graduates are women. Almost an equal number are summer associates at law firms (46 percent) and enter as associates (46 percent).4 Yet, by the time of partnership, only 19 percent of partners at law firms are women and only 15 percent of equity partners are women.5 Of the top 200 law firms, women are managing partners only 4 percent of the time.6

Trained, female talent out of law school that is invested in by law firms early on is being wasted. From a bottom line perspective, law firms are, and should be, motivated to change this trend. It makes no sense financially to attract and hire women out of law school and invest in their development, only to lose them in droves by the time they would become profitable partners. Law firms also will increasingly need female attorneys to service and attract the growing female leadership of their clients.

Interestingly, the female leadership gap for lawyers seems to start in law school with women holding 42 percent of leadership positions on law reviews at the top 50 law schools, but only 29 percent of the editor-in-chief roles.7 This figure points toward an early opt-out of leadership roles for women and supports Sandberg's ideas - maybe women attorneys are "leaning out" as early as law school.

In many ways, the traditional law firm model of success itself is antithetical to work-life balance sought by so many women. Where success is defined by the billable hour, face time is still more important than in most other professions, and creative workplace accommodations are difficult to obtain, it is little wonder that women just don't make it or choose to "lean out" before reaching the upper echelons of firm leadership. All of these practical considerations aside, law firms and the profession as a whole are steeped in a long history that has not necessarily fully embraced the contributions women bring, not only as successful client generators and attorneys, but as effective managers and leaders.

Part of what is appealing about Lean In when applied to law firms and legal practice is that it provides motivation and strategies for empowering women to gain leadership positions within the current system. Sandberg hits a nerve for women who despite their successes tend to have more self-doubt, feel the need to prove themselves more and allow themselves to be spoken over more than their male counterparts.

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