Diverse Leaders in Law: Big Ideas to Help Women Advance in Law

Laura Newpoff
For Columbus CEO
Diverse Leaders in Law

For years the legal industry has struggled to attract and retain female lawyers. Reports show that stress, burnout and mental health issues disproportionately impact women in the profession and many of them don’t believe they can be a lawyer and a mother at the same time.

A recent report from the American Bar Association found less than 25 percent of firm partners are women, and just 3 percent are racially or ethnically diverse women. 

For the women who do reach equity partner, the pay gap is widening. According to legal recruiting firm Major Lindsey & Africa, in 2010, women partners at larger law firms earned an average of 24 percent less than their male counterparts. By 2018, women partners reported making 35 percent less than partners who were men.

At Columbus CEO magazine’s quarterly Diverse Leaders in Law forum, three women attorneys who have built successful careers at central Ohio law firms shared their thoughts on ways to help women advance in the profession. The Jan. 6 discussion was sponsored by Barnes & Thornburg and Frost Brown Todd. The panelists were:

The following are excerpts from the conversation, which have been condensed and edited for clarity.

Encouraging paternity leave and flex time

One way law firms can help ease the child care responsibilities of women is to adopt paternity leave policies. However, there’s still hesitation among men to take advantage of that, Oliker says. Law firm leaders can encourage men to take that leave and share the responsibility as part of their firm culture. That’s one way to level the playing field, which leads to “inclusion and equity for all,” she says.

At many firms there are baked-in biases tied to child care. For example, Thompson says if someone sees a woman lawyer leave at 3 p.m. it’s assumed she’s on her way to pick up her child from school. It’s assumed a man leaving at the same time is headed for an off-site meeting. Because most families have two working parents, the internal dialogue at firms needs to shift around leave policies so responsibilities can be shared, she says.

The issue can go beyond leave policies by encouraging workplace flexibility for all employees so they can feel supported when they need to leave the office to attend events or volunteer at their child’s school, Higgins Marx says. The silver lining of the pandemic is that it has created a new paradigm around remote work that allows for more flexibility. “Clients don’t care where I’m getting back to them from, they just want me to be available when they need me,” she says. “And when we all appreciate that, it gives everyone the opportunity to be viewed equally.”

Challenges and opportunities

One particular challenge for women is the billable hour, which is tied to how much a person works and can affect work-life boundaries. Also, when women get involved in mentoring or leadership programs or do good work in the community, while those activities are valuable to the profession, they don’t count toward the billable hour. “I think in a lot of firms, women take on a large amount of training, mentoring and that non-billable work that is important to how firms run,” Thompson says. “So, when we’re talking about how many hours people are devoting to the firm, it’s not always captured in the amount of pay being received.” Thompson says one idea is for firms to get creative with alternative fee structures and move away from a billable-hour model that doesn’t value efficiency.

Another issue affecting women at firms is their inherent nature of being less confident than men. Formal guidelines and transparency around pay, bonuses and promotions can give women assurances they are being treated fairly in the workplace. “Women tend to wait until we know we’ve met every criteria before we raise our hand, before we push for the value that we think we should get from an organization,” Thompson says. “Being really clear and transparent helps females raise their hand when the time is right versus waiting for somebody to say, ‘Hey, we think you should have raised your hand, here’s your bonus,’ or, ‘Hey, you should be up for a promotion.’”

Promoting a culture of teamwork is another opportunity for firms that benefits women lawyers and clients, Oliker says. That’s because women enjoy working in teams and helping others. The result is a more balanced work load because different attorneys are called on at different times to handle areas of expertise, like intellectual property, a business transaction or litigation. The teamwork approach also means a  client gets to establish relationships with several people, which can help keep them on board for the long haul.  

A teamwork approach also fosters hands-on learning, especially for younger lawyers, Higgins Marx says. “My best training experiences were sitting in on a client meeting and listening to the questions that the clients asked and hearing the answers that my colleagues gave and kind of understanding how that dynamic truly works,” she says. “It’s one thing to know the law. And it’s another thing to understand how to convey that law in the form of advice to a client. And so that collaborative exercise will get a new or attorney there faster in my experience, and the client is getting the level of service they need.”

The panelists advice for women attorneys: “Be your own advocate,” and “invest in yourself.” The advice to firm leaders: “Create a positive culture that supports everybody,” and have formal guidelines in place to be transparent about pay and how the firm assigns mentors, work and bonuses.

“And be intentional about all those activities,” Higgins Marx says.

Laura Newpoff is a freelance writer.