Gender Equity in the Legal Industry, or GELI, is a collaboration among local firms.

In fall 2016, Bill Nolan was sitting in his downtown law office when he got a call from Katie Matney who, at the time, was the chief philanthropy officer at the Women’s Fund of Central Ohio. Like all fundraisers, she wanted him to write a check, in this case to sponsor the nonprofit’s “Gender by Us” toolkit to be introduced to the community at the Metropolitan Club. Nolan said yes, with an eye on bringing the toolkit to the legal community.

After former CEO Nichole Dunn and the Women’s Fund rolled out the toolkit at that luncheon, the managing partner of Barnes & Thornburg’s Ohio office was taken by what he describes as its “simple genius.”

“It was a series of cards with questions that tease out things relating to gender bias,” Nolan says. “After the lunch, my colleague Kelly Atkinson and I got busy thinking about where to get started.”

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In January of the following year Dunn helped the firm kick off its first discussion about how implicit biases impact the workplace. Nolan couldn’t believe 60 people showed up at 8 a.m. in the heart of winter. Two of those attendees were Michalea Delaveris, who at the time was with BakerHostetler LLP, and her colleague Jenni Edwards, who is a partner at the firm.

“The people who attended were really into it,” Nolan says. “The four of us had coffee after and all agreed, ‘Let’s keep this going.’ ”

Three other firms—Porter Wright Morris & Arthur LLP, Vorys Sater Seymour and Pease LLP and Bricker & Eckler—have since joined what’s called Gender Equity in the Legal Industry. There have been a total of eight events that draw about 100 people who are trying to get to the root of a series of issues that are pushing women out of the industry, including pay equity, work-life balance, partnership opportunities and equity among case assignments.

“The goal is to make everybody better, to challenge each other and hear different points of view,” Nolan says. “The ultimate outcome is to have a stronger point of view that’s better thought out.”

Stark differences

While the Women’s Fund prompted the idea for GELI, the home-grown movement operates independently and has active participation from men. The events are designed around a half hour of networking and then an hour of smaller breakout sessions that are centered around topics like mentorship, having men as allies and overcoming generational differences.

Delaveris, now associate general counsel in Ohio State University’s Office of Legal Affairs, says there’s a need for the group because “the numbers speak volumes.” To wit:

Law360 data show women accounting for 50.3 percent of law school graduates while their share of equity partnerships at firms remains at 20 percent. Other research by consulting firm Major, Lindsey & Africa shows female partners facing a 53 percent pay gap, or a salary of $627,000 a year compared to $959,000 for male partners. A Women’s Fund a study done in conjunction with the Kirwan Institute found in Franklin County, women in the legal field—attorneys, paralegals and legal assistants—earn 59 percent of what men do, the largest gap of median earnings of any profession. Add in American Bar Association research that shows that women and men report stark differences in the workplace in terms of issues such as unwanted sexual advances and being denied or overlooked for advancement opportunities, and it’s not surprising that women are exiting the profession. Statistics show women make up just 40 percent of practicing lawyers over age 40 and only 27 percent of lawyers over age 50.

“Bill was a mentor of mine through law school and we kept in touch after I joined Baker,” Delaveris says. “After being introduced to Gender By Us, it was an opportunity for our offices to collaborate to bring this to the industry. We, as a profession, are faced with some challenging circumstances and we asked ourselves, ‘Do we have an opportunity to address it?’ ”

Setting parameters

GELI creates its own branding and material for the events and produces “share outs” of feedback it gets afterwards. All the sources interviewed for this story stressed that even though the five firms are competitors there’s no sense of that at the events.

“We’re doing this not only for our own benefit but for the benefit of the legal industry at large,” says Nici Workman, a partner at Vorys. “It’s a cool thing that can set Columbus apart and elevate the city. ‘Hey, come here after law school, we’re an inclusive community that’s progressive on these issues. You can come here as a woman and be really successful.’ ”

Edwards of BakerHostetler says issues impacting women’s advancement in the legal profession have been well known for years and firms have tried to improve conditions through initiatives like enhancing parental leave, offering alternative schedules and developing customized career paths. But, she says, the needle hasn’t really moved.

“Why is that? What we found was maybe we aren’t talking about it enough,” she says. “There hadn’t been a forum for open, honest communication about individual experiences. This is a great tool for that first-year associate to sit in a small group with the managing partner of another law firm and really be able to talk about, ‘This is how I personally have experienced gender bias, both male and female.’ People have been really excited that they are getting an opportunity to share their experiences with someone who actually might be able to make changes for themselves and others.”

Joyce Edelman, a partner at Porter Wright, says the conversations have been enlightening and can lead to actual changes within firms.

At a recent event, a male participant talked about how lawyers are expected to be able to respond to a client around the clock, but he hadn’t considered the negative impact that expectation may have on a woman who has responsibilities as a family’s primary caretaker.

“It might be better if firms set parameters,” Edelman says. “You can answer up until midnight and then starting again at 7 a.m. but not 24/7 to give that edge to male lawyers. This is an issue that could be perceived as not having a level playing field. Several partners in my group from different firms really appreciated this insight.”

Nolan shared a similar story rooted in the “good old boys’ network.”

“A male partner might be thinking, ‘Oh I’ve got this big trial coming up and I have to travel to New York,’” he says. “I’m going to ask another male associate to join me because the woman associate has three kids and that’s going to be inconvenient for her.’ Through these discussions, people recognized, ‘Gosh, I might be doing that, too.’ So you talk about choosing the best associate and seeing if it makes sense for her.”

Marie-Joëlle Khouzam, a partner at Bricker & Eckler, says these types of conversations could prompt law firm leadership to think differently and be open to redefining success.

“The goal would be for the people who come to two or three of the sessions to bring these messages back to their firms and maybe create their own toolkit of sorts that can help them replicate these kinds of conversations internally at their offices,” Khouzam says. “Start a mini-GELI … Identify issues and concerns and then empower people to go forward.”