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Two years ago, Harry Reasoner, then managing partner of Houston’s Vinson & Elkins, stood before his colleagues at the annual partnership retreat and clicked on a PowerPoint slide. It was a black-and-white picture of three older white men in business suits who didn’t look so different from Reasoner himself. “This is what our clients looked like for the first 75 years,” he told them. Reasoner clicked again. The faces of three smiling, confident-looking women appeared in full color: Catherine Lamboley, general counsel of the Shell Oil Co., flanked by two other Shell in-house lawyers. “This,” said Reasoner, “is what our clients look like today.” Because Reasoner was making the presentation, it couldn’t be ignored — which is precisely why his partner Marie Yeates wanted him to deliver it. It was Yeates, a founding member of the firm’s new Women’s Career Development Council, who had put the presentation together. In her appellate litigation practice, she liked to use pictures to drive home her arguments in court. Here, the point was that V&E had a problem. More and more of the firm’s clients were women, and clients in general were starting to demand more diversity from their law firms. Several of V&E’s clients, including Shell, had begun asking the firm to indicate on its bills what percentage of work was done by women and minorities, according to Yeates. Plus, a larger group of clients and prospective clients was starting to inquire about the gender and racial makeup of firms before hiring. These questions confront most if not all large law firms throughout the United States. For firms struggling to bolster their ranks of senior female lawyers, V&E’s unusually concerted approach offers valuable lessons. In theory, it shouldn’t be hard for any large firm to show a high percentage of women lawyers in bills or client pitches. The enrollment at top law schools, the principal talent pool for V&E and other major firms, is now 50 percent female or more, and roughly 44 percent of V&E’s entering classes are women. The firm makes a significant investment in those women (as well as their male counterparts), spending at least $200,000 on recruiting and training each associate. Yet somewhere along the path to partnership, most women lawyers disappear, more so than their male counterparts. According to V&E’s data through 2000, 88 percent of women in an entering class typically leave the firm by their seventh year, as compared with 63 percent of the men. Men and women up for partnership tend to make partner in roughly equal numbers — about 60 percent to 70 percent of candidates succeed — but, thanks to those higher associate attrition rates, the percentage of women in the V&E partnership was only about 15 percent at the time Yeates put together her presentation. V&E has since nudged that figure up to 17 percent. But the firm is hardly declaring victory. Indeed, although V&E’s public acknowledgment of its problem is unusual, the problem itself is positively commonplace. Nationwide, 16 percent of partners in large law firms (including nonequity partners) are women. That’s an improvement over 1992 — when the number was 10.6 percent — but still a long way from matching the proportion of women coming out of law school. The gap emerges soon after a graduating class is absorbed into firms. In a recent survey by The American Lawyer, 33.8 percent of male associates predicted that they would be equity or nonequity partners within five years, but only 16.6 percent of female associates said the same. The women lawyers surveyed reported less satisfying work and more stress from trying to balance job demands with commitments such as families. “It’s harder for women to assimilate in firms,” says Diane Yu, chairman of the American Bar Association Commission on Women in the Profession. The commission is holding hearings around the country aimed at finding out how women lawyers are faring. Judging from the testimony she’s heard so far, Yu says, many women at law firms still feel somewhat stymied in their career progress — not by overt sexism, but by the way the system works. Female lawyers often have a harder time tapping into informal, mostly male networks, which makes it more difficult to snag plum assignments or bring in business. Then there’s the dilemma that won’t go away: Peak child-rearing years coincide with some of the peak years for professional development. “No well-run business would do anything to limit its attractiveness to half of the talent pool,” observes James Sandman, managing partner of Washington, D.C.’s Arnold & Porter. But that’s exactly what many law firms do. Although Arnold & Porter is well known for family-friendly policies such as an on-site day care center, it still has a partnership that is just 17.5 percent female. (And, according to the firm, women constituted 50 percent of incoming associates in 2003, up from 46.2 percent the year before.) So what does it take to stem the attrition and boost the number of women in senior positions at law firms? One answer comes from the West Coast, where 58 firms and corporate legal departments, mostly in San Francisco, have signed the so-called No Glass Ceiling Commitments, which spell out specific goals and steps for retaining and promoting women lawyers. The agreement was the brainchild of Angela Bradstreet, a partner at San Francisco’s Carroll, Burdick & McDonough who was then president of the Bar Association of San Francisco. The commitments are an effort, she says, “to put some teeth into actually getting firms to take some action to address this issue.” The agreement includes concrete objectives: a partnership (including nonequity) that is 25 percent female by December 2004; at least one woman managing partner, either firmwide or in a branch office, by December 2005; and approximately equal retention rates for men and women lawyers by 2004. Firms are required to report on their progress, beginning later this year. The commitments also prescribe making networking, mentoring, and business development opportunities available to women, as well as offering flexible and part-time schedules for partners and associates. At first glance, a goal of 25 percent women partners sounds fairly ambitious, given that the national average is almost 10 percentage points lower. But for many of the San Francisco firms that signed on, the No Glass Ceiling Commitments are not a big stretch. “A lot of San Francisco firms are already over 20 percent,” says Anne Weisberg of New York-based Catalyst, a consulting firm that specializes in helping clients retain and promote women. “Their elite law schools, Stanford in particular, admitted women way before the elite East Coast schools did, so women have been part of the profession there longer.” In fact, it seems that one good way to make a firm more attractive to women lawyers is, well, to have a lot of women lawyers to begin with. Seattle’s Preston Gates & Ellis, another No Glass Ceiling signatory, has a partnership that is 24.5 percent female. Managing partner B. Gerald Johnson says that the firm had women partners in the early 1960s. Most large firms didn’t start adding women partners until the 1970s. Firms without such a legacy have to work a little harder. At least, that’s what V&E has done. Yeates remembers that when she joined the firm’s management committee in 2000, she was buttonholed by partner Brenda Strama. “In her area [health care law], they had lost a couple of stellar women lawyers,” Yeates recalls. “She said to me, ‘You need to deal with this issue.’ ” Looking around, Yeates saw that other practice groups faced the same problem. When Yeates brought up the issue of attrition, she found a responsive listener in Reasoner, then the firm’s managing partner. “I have been fortunate in my career to work with a lot of superbly talented women lawyers,” he says. “But over the years many of them who were successful both in making partner and in the partnership had ultimately elected to withdraw from the firm” — mostly because of family commitments. Plus, Reasoner had gotten a fresh perspective on the experiences of women lawyers at large firms through his daughter, a partner at Houston’s Baker Botts who had recently had her first child. “That made it concrete and personal,” he says. In fall 2000 Yeates, Strama, and partner Karen Hirschman formed the development council to find ways to retain women lawyers. Looking for models, they paid particular attention to Deloitte & Touche, which had gone though a very successful effort in the early 1990s to improve retention and advancement for female partners. Deloitte had hired Catalyst as a consultant, so V&E did, too. “What [Deloitte] told us and what Catalyst told us was you have to build a business case,” Yeates says. So Yeates put together the presentation for the 2001 partnership retreat to show that retaining more women lawyers wasn’t just a nice idea, but a smart business strategy. Catalyst conducted a workplace assessment, interviewing more than 60 V&E attorneys. They also interviewed women attorneys who had left the firm, to find out why. The reasons fell mostly into two categories: work-life balance and career development. By fall 2001, the council had begun to shape the so-called Women’s Initiative, to address those concerns. Another idea that V&E borrowed from Deloitte & Touche was the creation of an outside advisory board. The 20 members of the board, all unpaid, included representatives from business (Continental Airlines Inc., general counsel Jennifer Vogel), politics (Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas)), academia (Rice University dean of natural sciences Kathleen Matthews), and philanthropy (Kathryn Fuller, president of the WWF, formerly known as the World Wildlife Fund). “We liked the idea of holding ourselves accountable to someone outside the firm,” explains partner Betty Owens, who left full-time practice to become the chief implementer of the Women’s Initiative. Of course, it didn’t hurt to develop additional ties with the clients that made up about half the board, including Shell’s Lamboley and Blockbuster Inc. senior corporate counsel Judy Norris. The board began by spending a day talking to 150 women associates in an off-site group meeting in February 2002. Many attendees said they were mystified about some of the firm’s policies, and they wanted more guidance on what it took to succeed there. “There were questions around partnership — what does it really take?” says Lamboley. “What does ‘of counsel’ mean? . . . What happens if I take some time off when I have children — does it take me off the partnership track? . . . Are there people working flextime? . . . There were a lot of questions about business development. Do they have to learn to play golf, do they have to go duck-hunting? . . . How do they get the prime work assignments?” The next day, the board met with management to discuss what they’d heard. That so many V&E lawyers were in the dark about such fundamental questions — many of which could apply to male associates, too — was disquieting. “I think there was some surprise,” says Lamboley. “There was a lot of feeling of ‘we need to do better.’ “ In practice, the Women’s Initiative had several prongs. The first involved revamping the firm’s policy on part-time or flexible schedules; although it had been on the books since 1995, the associates’ questions revealed that it wasn’t working as well as could be hoped. “The way the policy operated was very ad hoc and arbitrary and nontransparent,” says Owens. “There wasn’t a standard.” Instead, application of the policy varied, with some section heads being less open to the idea than others. Now, says Owens, all decisions on flextime are made by one committee, and all lawyers working, say, a 70 percent schedule are supposed to be working the same number of hours. Owens is the flextime overseer, evaluating each proposal for flexible arrangements, and both men and women are eligible to apply. “It’s based on the ability to make a business case for this particular arrangement,” says Owens. “Number one, is this someone we want to keep? . . . Two, can we make it work, given the practice area?” Since the new policy was implemented last year, the answer has been yes in every case. “I don’t know what would happen [if] we tell someone we can’t do it,” says Owens. On career development, Owens says, the firm is creating a mentoring program for new associates and partners. “The best mentoring occurs informally,” she says. “But women and minorities do not have the same access to informal mentoring that white males do. . . . It’s just easier to form that kind of relationship with people who are like you than not like you, so you have to help that with a formal mentoring program.” In addition, the firm is trying to define what it calls “core competencies” — skills that associates need at different stages of their development. “It’s like what the Supreme Court said about obscenity,” says Owens. “We as partners know what we expect of second-year associates versus sixth- or seventh-year associates, but we haven’t articulated it.” Kristie Tice, a seventh-year associate who recently started working a part-time schedule, welcomes more-specific expectations. “The great unknown is, how do I make partner?” she says. So can a V&E associate work part-time and still have a real shot at the partnership? A handful of V&E lawyers have already made partner after or while working part-time, according to Yeates. And Owens says the firm is now considering a formal part-time partnership track. Many law firms have the individual pieces — mentoring, flextime, even making part-time lawyers partner — of the V&E program in place, says Marci Krufka, a consultant with Altman Weil Inc. Krufka cites a National Association for Law Placement Inc. study that found that 96 percent of U.S. firms offer some sort of flextime policy. (However, only 5 percent of associates and 2 percent of partners use those programs.) But efforts at many firms to stem female attrition tend to be sporadic, focusing on only one area, such as flextime or mentoring, at a time. “I do think it’s less common for firms to take some firmwide initiative and publicize it like this,” says Krufka. “In that sense, [V&E] is ahead of the pack. What I see is a lot of firms trying to fix it in a piecemeal way, and they’re not really successful.” It’s too soon to gauge whether the Women’s Initiative is changing either attrition rates or partnership numbers. “Ultimately, the pool of [partnership] candidates at the end of the eighth year should reflect the numbers out of law school,” says V&E managing partner Joseph Dilg. “That’s going to take a little while to run through, but ultimately you’d like to see over the long run the percentage of women partners at 50-50.” The long run could prove very long. In the best-case scenario, assuming the Women’s Initiative immediately cut female attrition to the level of male attrition, it would take almost a decade for the numbers of male and female candidates for partnership to be equal, and even longer for women to reach the 50 percent mark in the partnership. But as word gets out, the Women’s Initiative could translate immediately into a recruiting edge for V&E, as suggested by the experience of Kathleen Spangler, of counsel, who has been working a part-time schedule for four years. “There’s quite a bit of interest in it, I’ve noticed, when I take summer associates out to lunch or interview people for summer associate,” Spangler says. “The women are often interested. . . . I tend to get those questions when it’s a one-on-one kind of thing. There’s some reluctance for that to be the first question out of the box in a formal interview environment.” V&E started its program almost three years ago, just as the economic boom of the late 1990s was beginning to fade. In a faltering economy, retaining women lawyers — or male lawyers, for that matter — may not be at the top of the agenda for most management committees. “Two or three years ago law firms were dreading attrition, and now some of them are praying for it,” says Arnold & Porter’s Sandman. But V&E’s initiative is not simply a nice gesture or an effort to make up for past injustices. It’s just good management. After all, mentoring helps both male and female lawyers. So does setting clear standards for year-by-year progress and partnership. One surprising finding by Catalyst at V&E was that many male lawyers who had left the firm cited work-life balance issues, too. Early on in the Women’s Initiative, says managing partner Dilg, there was some resentment among male associates at V&E who believed — incorrectly — that the revamped flextime program was aimed at women only. Actually, it is available to both, although women still tend to use it more. In fact, a sign of success for programs like the Women’s Initiative will be the extent to which men benefit from them. It’s no bad thing for firms to retain more of their talented male lawyers, too. “Work-life balance issues affect men, too,” says Sandman, “and as long as work-life balance is regarded as only a woman’s issue, there’s a limit to how much progress will be made.” This article first appeared in the June issue of The American Lawyer as part of a special report on women and the law. Emily Barker is editor of D&O Adviser, an American Lawyer Media publication.

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