Earlier this year, when Foley & Lardner promoted Mary Leslie Smith to become managing partner of its Miami office, the litigator welcomed the honor and recognized that it followed a recent trend.
“I had noticed an increased percentage of promotions going to women,” Smith said.
Nationwide statistics corroborate Smith’s observations. Data shows that since the allegations against disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein surfaced in October 2017 and spurred on the start of the #MeToo movement, women have climbed the ranks at large law firms at a faster pace than before.
Between Nov. 1, 2016, and Nov. 1, 2017—the one-year period before the allegations against Weinstein and numerous other prominent individuals emerged—some 1,503 women were promoted to partner status at their firms, according to an analysis of ALM Intelligence’s Legal Compass database.
In the ensuing seven months after the Weinstein scandal broke—from Nov. 1, 2017, until recently—the Legal Compass database shows that 1,724 women were promoted to partner status at the same set of law firms. In the time period before Weinstein and #MeToo, female partner promotions occurred at a rate of roughly 125 per month.
But after the #MeToo era began, the pace of promotions for women soared to 265 a month—or more than double the rate from the previous period. (The Legal Compass database includes more than 1,300 law firms, although it does not necessarily capture each and every partner promotion at those firms. The database does, however, capture promotions at the vast majority of firms included in it.)
“What the Harvey Weinstein and #MeToo movement has done is raise awareness,” Smith said. “Firms began to look internally and ask, ‘Are we doing right by our women?’”
Smith stressed that Foley & Lardner, a firm she joined a little more than a decade ago, has always been a favorable place for female lawyers.
“The Weinstein allegations clearly created a moment in time,” said Debra Baker, a lawyer and managing director at GrowthPlay, which consults with firms about expanding client relationships.
But prior to this #MeToo “moment,” economic and cultural forces already had made law firm management more amendable to promoting female lawyers, said Baker, even though historically women have not benefited from such advantages. (In a 2017 report from the National Association of Women Lawyers, just 18 percent of surveyed Am Law 200 firms reported having a woman among their firmwide managing partners.)
Baker said the most significant force now encouraging firms to promote women is an increased demand by clients for diversity. Clients are looking for diverse lawyers, not just to appear politically correct, but because they want advisers that know something about their businesses, will share fresh perspectives and work collaboratively, added Baker, noting that women often do better on those fronts since they “tend to score higher on social sensitivity.”
But even Baker is unsure about whether the #MeToo movement is really a factor in pushing more women into Big Law’s partnership ranks.
“I don’t think we have had enough time to evaluate that,” she said.
Since #MeToo began, however, in addition to the increased number of female partner promotions captured by Legal Compass, The American Lawyer and other ALM publications have reported on several high-profile elevations of women in Big Law. Earlier this month, Manatt, Phelps & Phillips announced that Donna Wilson, chair of the firm’s privacy and cybersecurity practice, would become its CEO and managing partner in July 2019.
Wilson, who joined Manatt Phelps in 2013, will replace William Quicksilver, who has served as CEO and managing partner of the firm since 2007. Her new role will make Wilson one of only a few female partners to hold the top leadership position at their firm. Through a Manatt Phelps spokeswoman, Wilson declined to discuss the recent spate of promotions, citing her newness in her firm’s top leadership role.
But Wilson is not the only woman to find herself in a Big Law position of power since Weinstein’s allegedly illicit actions launched a social movement.
Less than a month after the Weinstein matter changed the public discourse, Ropes & Gray selected corporate partner Julie Jones to become its first-ever female chair. Jones, who was also unavailable to comment for this story, will begin that role at the end of 2019 following the retirement of Ropes & Gray’s current leader, R. Bradford Malt.
“I was always judged on merit. We value intelligence, hard work and commitment—and those things are gender-blind,” Jones told The American Lawyer at the time her promotion was announced. “I feel lucky because of the values Ropes & Gray has as a firm, and because we’ve always had strong women leaders and I benefited from that. I feel a sense of duty in that regard. I need to continue to demonstrate our commitment to those core values.”
At the same time as Jones’ promotion, Ropes & Gray said that W. Jane Rogers, the firm’s former global co-head of finance, would serve on its policy committee. (Ropes & Gray has a long history of elevating female lawyers, having celebrated in late 2017 the accomplishments of retired partner Ruth Reardon O’Brien, a trailblazer for female lawyers in Big Law and the mother of television personality Conan O’Brien.)
This past January, 94-lawyer Potter Anderson & Corroon named Kathleen Furey McDonough as its chair. She became the first woman to lead the Delaware-based firm in its 192-year history and, according to Potter Anderson, the first woman to lead a major firm from the First State.
In March, Lori Miller became the first female partner to serve as CEO at Goldberg, Miller & Rubin. Half of the Philadelphia-based litigation boutique’s 32 lawyers are women and the firm credits Miller with rebranding it.
“Especially in this time period, this culture right now, I’m just really proud to represent this firm and the women in this firm,” Miller told The Legal Intelligencer earlier this year.
In April, Patricia Brown Holmes, became the first managing partner of Schiff Hardin spinoff Riley Safer Holmes & Cancila, making her the first African-American woman to head a national firm that is not minority- or women-owned.
Holmes, a former judge, underscored that her recent elevation to the top of her firm, as well as news of other women climbing up their firms’ leadership ladder, should not halt further progress for women and minorities in Big Law since such progress remains sorely needed.
“I can tell you, I have a sense that the sexism, racism, whatever in the law industry, is real,” said Holmes, noting that black female lawyers remain only 0.6 percent of equity female partners.
But she disagreed with the notion that the #MeToo movement and the recent spate of female lawyers gaining a stronger say in firm matters are related.
“That is not why we did it at our law firm,” Holmes said.
At the same time, she reckons the world overall is changing and the law business eventually will catch up.
“When you have a black girl marrying the prince of England, we are moving in the right direction,” said Holmes, referring to the recent nuptials of Prince Harry and actress Meghan Markle.