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Over the past few years, much has been written concerning the relatively low number of women partners in U.S. law firms. These low numbers stand in stark contrast to the numbers of women in the entering classes of first-year associates into private practice. Although nearly equal numbers of women and men enter private practice, when the time for the partnership decision arrives, women are not represented in anything close to equal numbers. The most recent survey for the Legal Times 150 report found that only 16 of the District’s biggest firms (those with more than 100 lawyers) had more than 20 percent female partners. At my firm, Mintz Levin Cohn Ferris Glovsky and Popeo, we have 19 percent women partners, compared to the national average of 18 percent. This raises the obvious question: If firms have had policies in place during the past 10 years or more to ensure equal opportunities for women associates to develop the professional skills necessary to be successful, why is the number of female partners still so low? Cultural norms, client demands, and the economic business of law firms all contribute to the low number of women partners. In 1984, at an assembly for my entering law school class, the then-dean of the school warned us “the law is a jealous lover.” According to Webster’s New World Dictionary, “jealousy” is defined as demanding exclusive loyalty. My own experience in private practice has certainly demonstrated the wisdom of the dean’s observation. If private law firm practice does not quite demand exclusive loyalty from those who seek to excel, it certainly does place tremendous demands on the lawyer’s time — an observation that likely comes as a surprise to no one reading this article. As many others have observed, culturally and historically, women often believe that the roles they want or need to play, particularly in the home and family, are incompatible with the demands of this “jealous lover.” Their spouses may feel the same way, making it that much more difficult for the woman who wants to devote more time to her career. Recent studies report that women are still responsible for 90 percent of the domestic and child care responsibilities, even when employed full-time. Thus, unless either these cultural factors change dramatically or it is possible to somehow modify the traditional time demands of private practice, women are likelier than men to find that those time demands, coupled with the other demands of their lives, simply make working in private practice impossible — or at least very undesirable. The basic economic model for private practice — nothing to sell except the lawyers’ time — is in direct conflict with the idea of flexible schedules or reduced hours to accommodate other facets of one’s life. (This economic model was, of course, established long before there was any significant number of female attorneys in most law firms.) While law firms look at many factors when determining whether a lawyer is eligible to be made a partner, two key considerations tend to be billable hours and revenue generation. The generation of business is achieved in a variety of ways, including working within existing relationships, marketing expertise through speaking and writing engagements, and attending events to build new relationships. All of these activities are in addition to servicing clients and meeting the billable hour expectations set by law firms. And all of this, of course, requires considerable time.
Firm Percentage of Partners Who Are Women
King & Spalding 31.25%
Arent Fox 29.17%
Howrey 26.53%
Sutherland Asbill & Brennan 25%
Hogan & Hartson 24.45%
Venable 23.85%
Wilmer 23.02%
Pillsbury Winthrop 22.09%
McDermott Will & Emery 22.06%
Dow Lohnes 22.03%
Source: Firms’ response to the Legal Times 150 survey

Client demands also play a role, particularly given the increasingly fast-paced business world where immediacy is the order of the day. Corporations and other purchasers of legal services have come to expect service availability on a 24/7 basis, and those firms and lawyers who want to compete successfully for that business need to be able to provide those services. Thus, even the most sophisticated law firms, which have recognized the importance of retaining talent and have policies in place to ensure equal opportunities for professional development and flexible work arrangements to accommodate personal life demands, remain challenged by an economic business model, client service expectations, and cultural norms that all seem to work against those retention policies. And as a result, the percentage of women in the partnership ranks continues to trail dramatically the percentage of women in law school graduating classes. EQUAL OPPORTUNITY Law firms are on the right track to address this issue. The first important step in the retention of women — or any underrepresented group — is to ensure equal opportunity for all lawyers willing to work within the historically defined economic model. In other words, women who are willing to make the time commitment to play within the “traditional” model must be given the opportunities that will enable them to be successful. This requires work allocation policies that ensure equal access to client service projects; equal access to firm leaders and rainmakers; formal and informal training; participation on client pitch teams; and consistent mentoring. These policies and practices must have well-defined accountability measures to ensure they are achieving the intended results. The second challenge is to adopt policies and practices that can address the tremendous tensions posed by personal life demands, cultural norms, and the existing law firm business model. Flexible work arrangements are essential; however, such arrangements must be well-defined and must recognize that the primary goal is to provide client services consistent with client demands. The firm and the individual should have a clear understanding of what effect such arrangements may have on partnership considerations. Technology has made it easier than ever before for lawyers to do their work without physically being in the office, increasing the viability of options such as telecommuting and flexible work schedules. Law firms must have the flexibility to adapt to these advances, and to recognize that the modern workplace no longer necessarily looks like, or functions like, your father’s law firm. Law firms and clients may also need to consider alternatives to the traditional billable hour format. Many people complain about the billable hour and the possible incentives it creates that may actually reward inefficiency in some cases, yet few seem willing to do anything about it. Project-based pricing for legal services, or other billing alternatives, could ultimately move the profession in a direction that would focus more on results being achieved and less on the hours being punched on the clock. Ultimately, law firm management, lawyers seeking alternatives to the traditional law firm economic model, and clients must work together to reduce the conflicts that appear to be driving many women from seeking or maintaining the position of partner in private practice. Although a great deal of progress has been made since that day the dean addressed my law school class, the demands of that jealous lover are still holding back many of our most talented professionals. It is in everyone’s interest to do what we can to remedy that situation.

Cherie Kiser is managing partner of the D.C. office of Mintz Levin Cohn Ferris Glovsky and Popeo, a member of the firm’s policy committee, chairwoman of the diversity committee, and chairwoman of the communications section for the firm.

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