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How can a woman lawyer best develop her career? What can law firms do to retain and promote women lawyers? These questions remain burning issues not only for women lawyers, but also for the firms and clients that hire them. Last month, speakers at a National Association of Women Lawyers conference in Washington, D.C., repeatedly advised women to set career goals, regularly re-evaluate them, and make it a priority every day to work toward achieving them (good advice for any lawyer!). Career development should be a woman lawyer’s first priority, speakers urged. From there, success in other realms will follow. The March 12 conference, which was also sponsored by a host of other bar associations and law firms, was entitled “Taking Charge of Your Career: Best Practices for Women Lawyers and Their Firms.” Despite all the past attention paid to the subject, it seems clear from the experiences of individual lawyers that there is an ongoing need for career-development advice and policies to encourage retention of women and minorities in law firms. In fact, the conference attracted more than 225 lawyers from around the country, overwhelming those of us organizing it — initially, we thought an audience of 50 would be a wild success. The response to the conference is both good news and bad. On the positive side, it shows women truly do realize the importance of directing their careers and seizing the initiative. It is also good news because it shows that firms today are willing to send women to this kind of conference. On the other hand, the outpouring of interest demonstrates a widespread — and unmet — hunger for such information among women lawyers. Managing partners, take note! THE BUSINESS CASE Although women are now being hired out of law school in numbers equal to those of men, they remain under-represented in the management and partner ranks of “elite” law firms. Why should law firms care? The NAWL conference made the business case for proactive policies to counter the now well-recognized tendency for women and lawyers of color to “vote with their feet” and quit law firm jobs. According to Joan Williams, co-chair of the Attorney Retention Project at American University’s Washington College of Law and co-author of “Balanced Hours: Effective Part-Time Policies for Washington Law Firms,” each “lost” lawyer costs a firm as much as $1 million in lost recruitment, training, and other intangibles like client dissatisfaction and lower morale (and related turnover). In these competitive times, it is also important to recognize the costs of turnover in terms of client relationships and lost business. As Williams reported — and in-house lawyers Carole Jordan of Fannie Mae and Patricia Merrill of GE Asset Management confirmed — clients, whose general counsel offices increasingly include women and lawyers of color, are assessing the diversity of the firms they hire. They are also considering attrition — and the quality-of-life issues that affect attrition — in deciding which firms to retain. What are the challenges to the advancement and retention of women lawyers that law firms should recognize? One panel at the conference, entitled “Not What You Learned in Law School,” identified isolation and lack of mentors as key obstacles for women in law firms, particularly women of color, who often have fewer role models. These problems persist in part because of the difficulties that white men — the traditional law firm leaders — fear may arise if they seek to mentor women lawyers. According to panelist Jane DiRenzo Pigott, these obstacles, which include fears of being misinterpreted and making inappropriate comments, can be addressed if they are identified and discussed openly. What can firms do to overcome these problems? Law firms in the District have taken a variety of creative approaches to stem the loss of women lawyers. Putting an effective mentoring program into place is a key first step. Deborah Feinstein, chair of Arnold & Porter’s new associate committee, described her firm’s support for formal mentoring opportunities by partners. Feinstein also stressed that “law firms need to not only provide the opportunities to develop these relationships, but also to evaluate partners in part on their involvement and success in the firm’s mentoring.” Arnold & Porter also has organized a women’s forum run by associates, not partners, which gives women associates an opportunity to raise issues of concern to them with firm management. However, speakers warned that putting policies into place without the support of the firm’s senior management may be as bad, or worse, than having no policies at all. As Jenner & Block partner Stephanie Scharf, the chair of the meeting, counseled, “A policy that is not enforced or monitored is nothing more than a piece of paper.” Supporting the quest by attorneys for a balanced-hours schedule also is crucial. Judith Harris, managing partner of Reed Smith’s D.C. office, described her firm’s practices for retaining women lawyers, including part time, flex time, and telecommuting. In fact, she said that she could not recall a single request for a balanced-hours schedule that Reed Smith has ever rejected. Her advice: “Figure out what you want, ask for it clearly, and know how to take ‘yes’ for an answer.” Still, understanding — and providing — meaningful programs to address the personal needs of women lawyers is critical. Speakers on the panel entitled “Work/Life Balance: Opting In, Opting Out or Something In Between,” provided practical advice that law firm leaders and mentors can give to female attorneys for attaining a satisfying quality of life while practicing law. Williams of AU recommended, for instance, that women assess personal needs first, and then negotiate with their employers, with “no less zeal than you would on behalf of a client.” Carter Phillips, managing partner of Sidley Austin Brown & Wood’s D.C. office, confirmed that “employers often are more receptive than you might expect.” The panelists offered several important pieces of advice for lawyers trying to establish a balanced-hours schedule. Lawyer Cindy Robertson, a new mother and associate at Jenner & Block, advised not to neglect the nonbillable hours that will almost certainly be part of your day-to-day work life. Professor Williams also counseled, “Given the ebb and flow of many law practices, agreeing to an annual number of hours versus a weekly or monthly number of hours can often provide better flexibility.” Phillips of Sidley Austin recommended that firms designate a partner to oversee part-time attorneys’ monthly billable hours, to protect against hours “creep” and to provide an advocate in the firm for lawyers working a balanced-hours schedule. Ensuring a diverse and satisfying range of professional experiences and training is also important. Firms should take steps to ensure that the quality of work experience is as equivalent as possible for all lawyers in the firm. Stephanie Tsacoumis, chair of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher’s career development committee, discussed her role in monitoring assignments of the most junior associates. Each associate is formally evaluated every six months for the first two years to make sure she is on track, both in terms of her professional development and quality of work. Frequent evaluations provide an opportunity to nip problems in the bud should they arise, as well as to give associates the feedback they need. In addition, Tsacoumis stressed the importance of informal evaluations and soliciting honest feedback from the people one works with. If an associate asks for feedback, she shows she’s interested in the work, and the feedback will help her develop. OTHER PERSPECTIVES To state the obvious, smaller firms have different concerns than large firms and may approach the issue of mentoring very differently. As Paulette Chapman, president of the Women’s Bar Association of the District of Columbia, explained, “Although small firms often do not have the resources for the formal evaluation and mentoring programs of the large firms, these programs are less necessary in small firms. In my firm, informal mentoring takes place on a daily basis. It is a necessity for our firm to survive.” Chapman noted that young attorneys at small firms are given a tremendous amount of responsibility early on and work closely with partners. The NAWL conference concluded with the audience and panelists splitting into small groups to identify key obstacles to success for women and solutions to promote career satisfaction at law firms and work-life concerns. One of the discussion groups identified the following barriers to overcome: not knowing the rules; women’s unwillingness to delegate; lack of access to in-firm power structure and networks; lack of the male model of self-promotion; and lack of knowledge about how to market effectively. Another group identified strategies that women can pursue to attain success. These strategies include creating a plan; seeking mentors inside and outside the firm; keeping in contact with clients; promoting your successes and strengths; taking on leadership opportunities; and monitoring your progress toward your goals. Other discussion groups flagged the opportunities and programs most needed at law firms. Among them, the need for: institutionalized programs and networks for women (both formal and informal); employee assistance; training on career and business development; identifying aspirations and goals; and (on the wish list?) an in-house concierge. If firms can acknowledge these impediments and address the need for new career development programming, they can help to stem the flow of women from their ranks. Given the success of the Washington conference, NAWL will be doing its part by planning similar events in upcoming months in other major cities, including New York, Chicago, and Atlanta. For more information about NAWL and these upcoming conferences, visit NAWL’s Web site at www.nawl.org. Lorelie S. Masters served as a co-chair of the conference. She is a partner in Jenner & Block’s D.C. office and a member of the firm’s insurance litigation and counseling, arbitration (domestic and international), and litigation practices.

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