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As Maria Feeley addressed the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Board of Governors last month, the co-chairwoman of the bar association’s Women in the Profession Committee compared the adoption of gender equity policies to investing in upgraded computers.

It costs up-front, said Feeley of Pepper Hamilton, but it would be a shortsighted business decision not to make the investment.

As Feeley presented the 21-year-old committee’s proposed “Call to Action” and “Best Practices for the Retention and Promotion of Women Attorneys,” she cited informal information she gleaned from contacts at large firms who said that the loss of an associate could cost a firm $500,000. The National Association of Law Placement’s 2006 survey found a 78 percent attrition of women associates by their sixth year of practice. The loss of associates means the loss of relationships with clients and the attendant referral opportunities, Feeley said.

“In addition to the fact it’s the right thing to do, there’s really a business case to be made,” Feeley said. “Attrition rates are terrible for firms. It does cost a lot of money when a firm loses an associate.”

In an era in which women have entered law school and lower-level associate ranks at law firms and corporate legal departments at an equivalent rate to men, the returns on that gender representation have not shown up at the leadership, partner or general counsel levels.

That disparity has inspired actions like the Women in the Profession committee’s development of its best practices and the Board of Governors unanimously adopting the call to action and the best practices Sept. 27.

On average, 44.96 percent of law firm associates are women, 25.93 percent of non-equity partners are women, 15.64 percent of equity partners are women and 27.94 percent of of counsel attorneys are women, according to the first-ever national survey by the National Association of Women Lawyers.

The survey was conducted last year on the leadership status of private-practice female attorneys with data collected from 103 firms.

Women who graduated from law school between 1990 and 1995 make up 25 percent of equity partners in one-tier partnership law firms and 19 percent of equity partners in two-tier firms.

The American Bar Association’s Commission on Women in the Profession 2006 survey found that women make up 30 percent of attorneys nationally, but only 17 percent of women attorneys are partners, only 16.6 percent of Fortune 500 general counsels are women and only 15.7 percent of Fortune 1000 general counsels are women.

The two documents adopted last month are the follow-up to the bar association’s 1998 “Statement of Goals of Philadelphia Law Firms and Legal Departments for the Retention and Promotion of Women.”

The subcommittee that drafted the best practices drew from attorneys from small to large firms, attorneys who work in governmental service and those who work as in-house corporate counsel. The group, Feeley said, looked at other bar associations’ recommended best practices and at gender equity initiatives in fields like accounting that have a similar ownership structure to law firms.

Fifty-three firms are signatories to the statement of goals that called for full and equal participation of women, the retention of women and the promotion of women. The 1998 goals include the suggestions that “inappropriate inquiries about personal lives, childbearing plans and physical appearance” be stopped during interviews with women attorneys; that women lawyers should be given “the same presumption of competence, commitment and ultimate success” of their male peers; and that office functions should be prohibited from venues that discriminate on the basis of gender.

The best practices continues the themes about the need to guarantee women attorneys access to develop relationships with clients and the firm’s leadership, as well as to allow for a work-life balance.

General goals include full and equal participation of women, retention of women, promotion of women, and self-analysis and accountability for the retention and promotion of women. The best practices reiterates the 1998 goal of internally tracking the retention and promotion of women in comparison to men.

But the best practices has a fresh focus on more active policies, such as providing leadership training to women attorneys, including gender diversity in firm business plans, formalizing mentoring programs and ensuring that gender-neutral policies start with management’s leadership and permeate down to the entry level.

“It would have been delightful if what we did in ’98 would have been the end of it. I’m also not surprised that it wasn’t,” said Philadelphia Bar Association Chancellor Jane Dalton, a partner at Duane Morris. “Accompanying the goals with the best practices is really the best step forward. It gives legal employers specific suggestions: ‘Here are some things that will help you do that.’”

Dalton particularly welcomes the best practices resolution because of the growing desire from female attorneys to have flexible hours.

“It’s important to remind employers of women lawyers that there’s going to be an increasing push toward flexibility in terms of part time, full time, to let women know they are supported as they’re going through whatever particular challenges they’re going through at a particular time,” the chancellor said.

Feeley said the next step after the Board of Governors’ adoption of the best practices for the retention and promotion of women attorneys will be to contact the signatories of the 1990s-era statement of goals to see if they will become signatories for the up-to-date best practices.

Dalton said the best practices document is not so much an antagonistic call to arms for the legal private sector to tackle gender equity, but rather an avenue that firms will gladly walk down.

“I think the firms will be quite welcoming of them. I don’t see it as a sense of battle. They will see it as an opportunity,” Dalton said.

Maryellen Feehery Hank, a partner at Reed Smith and a member of the firm’s women’s initiative committee that was started in 2003, said the firm will seriously consider following up on its decision to become a signatory to the 1998 statement of goals by becoming a signatory to the newly minted call to action. Feehery Hank also noted the firm joined a similar initiative in San Francisco.

A number of the suggested Philadelphia best practices is echoed in Reed Smith’s policies, including addressing the retention and promotion of “good women within Reed Smith,” developing separate seminars for junior and senior women attorneys on leadership in the firm, and galvanizing networking between women attorneys and women business clients, Feehery Hank said.

“I think it’s important to recognize that women attorneys have a lot to offer in the profession both as members of firms and at the various (leadership) levels and also as clients,” Feehery Hank said. “It just makes a lot of business sense for anyone in the profession to consider how we retain and appropriately promote women attorneys.”

Sharon Caffrey, a partner at Duane Morris and chairwoman of the firm’s women’s committee, said that Duane Morris is also likely to become a signatory to the best practices because it was a signatory to the 1998 statement of goals.

She also said that the firm has many of the suggested best practices in place including having some of the first female partners in Philadelphia and having a strong formal mentoring program so women attorneys can work on “networking, marketing and lawyering skills so they have a future at the firm.”

Caffrey also felt a number of the issues raised in the 1998 document have been resolved. Now, she said, the retention of associates is the pinnacle gender equity issue.

“Women are looking at how this is happening and how to turn that tide. I think the call to action is very compatible with where the issues are for women today, particularly with the retention issues. Women are becoming leaders more and more. Keeping that out there as a goal is a benefit to women,” Caffrey said.

Wanda Flowers, a member of the subcommittee that crafted the best practices and who has worked at Sunoco as a general attorney directly reporting to the company’s general counsel, for seven years said that the best practices are just as applicable to corporate law departments as it is to law firms.

She cited the suggested best practices of formalizing mentoring programs and holding annual retreats with all of a firm’s women attorneys. Flowers, who was the regional attorney and top attorney for the Philadelphia district of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission enforcing federal anti-discrimination laws, said that efforts to increase mentoring of women attorneys by other women will help the younger or less experienced learn how to navigate their workplace confidently and to present themselves in a positive light to the organization’s leaders who will make a decision about their continued participation in the organization.

The corporations are increasingly placing a premium on diversity goals in law firms, which creates an incentive for law firms to respond to that client expectation, Flowers said.

“The best practices — if employed in firms or in corporations — [will increase the] numbers of women making it to levels of management and control within legal departments. All women could benefit,” Flowers said. “And typically as women go, so do minorities. You will also have a more positive, more humane workplace for all involved. It raises people’s consciousness because they start to become aware.”

Other bar associations in the country have also adopted best practices or calls to action regarding the retention and promotion of female attorneys.

NAWL, the largest bar of women attorneys in the country, issued the NAWL Challenge in July 2006, which states that by 2015 30 percent of all equity partners, 30 percent of chief legal officers and 30 percent of tenured law faculties would be women.

In February 2006, the New York City Bar Association (NYCBA) issued a 45-page document of best practices with similar themes to the Philadelphia Bar Association’s best practices.

Brande Stellings, chairwoman of the NYCBA’s committee on the Women in Profession and senior director of advisory services for Catalyst, a New York nonprofit dedicated to advancing women in the workplace, said that the committee’s work was inspired by the discrepancy between the rate of women entering the profession and women reaching the echelons of the profession.

“We were aware of significant efforts that had been made in other professions such as the accounting profession, which has similar challenges. We thought this would be a great forum or road map for firms or organizations that better wanted to retain and attract women,” Stellings said.

Stellings said New York firms have been receptive to New York City’s suggested best practices for gender equity in the legal profession. Some firms have asked the bar to come to talk about the best practices and are framing strategies based off them, Stellings said.

Stellings also delighted in a group of Buenos Aires, Argentina, women attorneys who were inspired by the NYCPA’s report to form a networking group to promote women in the legal profession. She also said the practices were reviewed in a Paris journal.

“I think it’s really exciting they’re going global,” she said. “I’m really excited to see the level of engagement.”

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