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A feminist once quipped that there’s no such thing as a glass ceiling — just a thick layer of white men overhead. That seems to be a problem in Sprint Corporation’s law department, at least according to responses to Corporate Counsel’s Quality of Life survey and follow-up interviews. Such criticism is surprising because independent organizations — including Working Woman magazine — cited Sprint in the early 1990s as a particularly good place for women to work. But these days more than half of Sprint’s respondents were pessimistic about opportunities for women (compared to approximately a third of the overall respondents). And several Sprint lawyers complained bitterly, saying there was a “lack of advancement opportunities … particularly for women,” “a real glass ceiling,” and “Sprint is not a bad place to work — it’s just much better if you’re male or white.” Of 135 lawyers in Sprint’s law and external affairs departments, 32 filled out our survey; half were men. Overall, the respondents gave their company high marks for exciting work, good compensation, and generous benefits. And they love the stock options. But a number of Sprint respondents criticized law department management, not only for the paucity of high-ranking women and minorities, but also for inconsistent promotion criteria, lack of advancement opportunities, excessive centralization, and departmental politics. Still, the lawyers don’t seem to be rushing to leave — although there are some fears they may get pushed out the door by the pending merger with MCI Worldcom, Inc., due to be completed sometime this summer. “If there were serious quality of life problems, people would be voting with their feet,” says James “Rich” Devlin, executive vice president and general counsel. “We have an exceedingly stable workforce.” Plus, he says, the company conducts anonymous and voluntary annual job satisfaction surveys, addressing such touchy subjects as confidence in fair management, favoritism, and benefits. Although he won’t disclose the findings, Devlin says that the law department has a 95 percent participation rate and stacks up “very well” relative to the rest of the company. Devlin also disputes the notion that women and minorities are stymied at Sprint. There has been that perception, he says, but it’s not supported by the facts: Fifty-seven percent of the legal department is female, and women have racked up 73 percent of the promotions in the last three years. Minorities account for 13.5 percent of the lawyer slots and 9.5 percent of promotions over the past three years. Managers “do handstands” seeking out qualified women and minorities, says one Sprint lawyer, who like all the others requested anonymity. But some other lawyers saw the situation differently. “Up to the glass ceiling, [management is] fine,” says one. Another says, “For women who aspire to become officers of the company, the future does not appear to be bright; indeed, in the past five years there has been very little change in the departmental leadership team.” And still another says, “The lack of advancement opportunities is a problem … especially for women, [who] make up a large percentage of the staff attorneys.” Sprint survey respondents were pessimistic about opportunities for advancement overall. And some say that — despite numerous lower-level promotions — it is “nearly impossible” for women to advance into the law department’s most powerful jobs. Of the 11 lawyers on Devlin’s “lead team,” three are female; one, an African American, was hired from outside Sprint in September 1999 to serve as senior vice president for federal external affairs. One woman was a vice president before Devlin’s arrival in 1989. Devlin has promoted only one female lawyer to the officer level; she was made an assistant vice president seven years ago. During this period, two men were promoted from within the department, and three men who’d moved to business units and were promoted there were taken back at the VP level. “Most companies today are not very good at this,” concedes one female lawyer. Thirty-five percent of all respondents to the Corporate Counsel survey said that opportunities for women fell somewhere between “very poor” and “average.” But at Sprint, 53 percent of the survey respondents — and 75 percent of the women — rated opportunities for women pessimistically. The money at Sprint is good — so good that, as one lawyer said, “You can put up with a lot of crap.” Half of the respondents report being either “quite satisfied” or “very satisfied” with their compensation. That’s well above the overall average of 33 percent. And why not? Most of the Sprint survey respondents (84 percent) pocketed a 1999 year-end bonus, and a whopping 97 percent get stock options, as opposed to 64 percent of total survey respondents. With Sprint’s stock going strong, these options are golden. According to one lawyer, a letter circulated in March to associates noted that if the lawyers had taken half of their 1999 bonuses in stock options, the value of those options would have septupled. As this lawyer puts it: “There’s been a lot of personal wealth creation.” The work is also interesting. Over and over again, Sprint lawyers use words like “exciting,” “fascinating,” and “cutting-edge.” Thanks may go to the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Designed to unleash competition between local and long-distance phone companies, the law swept out dusty old regulations and case law and left it to lawyers to create a new regime. But there are some problems. A few of the lawyers criticized management for the way salaries are set and job performances evaluated. They dislike being lumped into job grades designed for business-side employees. And they distrust the way management determines promotions and raises. According to one lawyer, in-housers get “hit hard” by the scale, designed by the consulting firm Hay Group, that was put in place in the early 1990s to establish job grades and salaries companywide. The complaint is that lawyers’ skills and training were not taken into account. For instance, the scale counts how many people an employee supervises but ignores the fact that lawyers rarely oversee as many people as professional managers. The result, says one lawyer, is that “business people with much less education and experience are much more highly compensated than company lawyers.” Devlin says that dissatisfaction with the job grade scale results from confusion more than anything else. “Within a corporation, there generally needs to be some mechanism for banding equivalent jobs together,” he reasons. And unlike their business-side colleagues, lawyers move up through the ranks without having to meet Hay system requirements every step of the way. While the Hay system was used to establish the basic salary structure, annual performance reviews and raise and promotion decisions are made using different criteria. But a few lawyers also blasted an evaluation system they say is supposedly standardized but in reality is “arbitrary” and dictated by the general counsel and his 11 deputies. A few lawyers had even more barbed comments for the general counsel’s management style: “overly centralized and bureaucratic, resulting in [a] serious loss of individual initiative”; “top-down driven”; “the GC pretty much decides everything and micromanages”; “do away with [the] strict pecking order [and] structure — one of the important reasons we all wanted out of law firms.” But nobody wanted to go on the record with these complaints. Apparently that’s because, as one lawyer put it: “The way to get ahead is, you don’t rock the boat, you don’t criticize the management, you don’t speak up.” Devlin’s response? “How dare you say that!” he bellows, joking. “I can be very forceful,” he admits. But he says he does value feedback. Some lawyers on his staff back him up. Devlin “is a reasoned decision maker, and he really does value input. … I think that if anything, people don’t challenge him enough,” says one. However perspectives differ on some aspects of life at Sprint, the entire law department — including Devlin — seem to agree on this: They are in a state of limbo that will persist until the merger with MCI goes through. In assessing the chances that they would still be at Sprint in two years, half of the survey respondents said the odds were either “quite unlikely” (47 percent) or “nil” (3 percent). An additional 41 percent put the chances at fifty-fifty. But only 16 percent said that they were currently looking for another job. Most are waiting to see what happens with the merger. Devlin says that the Clinton, Mississippi-based MCI Worldcom “has a very large law and external affairs department.” Everyone at Sprint is in the dark about which jobs will be retained: “[And] nobody knows who’s going to get the top job — including me.”

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