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Those X chromosomes must be in overdrive. Not only are women breaking into the nation’s largest law firms in unprecedented numbers — several firms report 50 percent or more in their entering class — but, increasingly, they are aiming for the partnership suite. The national average for female partners (both equity and nonequity) among the top grossing 100 firms is now 16 percent — not cause for a national holiday, perhaps, but notable, considering that it was just 10.6 percent in 1992. In the last decade almost every major firm increased — however modestly — its female shareholders. And the feminization of law practice doesn’t stop there. Mentoring programs, part-time work options, generous maternity leaves (up to nine months, three of them paid), emergency child care facilities, and other women/family-sensitive measures have become standard fare at the nation’s most elite firms. Indeed, women lawyers have never had it so good. But here’s the paradox: Despite the promising statistics and progressive policies, a vastly disproportionate percentage of women still aren’t sticking around to compete for the ultimate firm prize: partnership. The reality is that almost all associates bail out of firms, but women lawyers, who more often seem charged with trying to balance work and home, bail out of the game far more often than men. “There are certain things about the practice of law on the cutting edge that puts pressure on people,” says Cravath, Swaine & Moore’s managing partner Robert Joffe, “and people have to make choices.” When push comes to shove, women tend to choose family over competition for big-time partnerships. Does the choice have to be that stark? After reviewing statistics and talking to women at major firms, we see a variety of experiences. Some leading firms, such as New York’s Davis Polk & Wardwell, seem to have done exceptionally well in addressing the work-home dilemma while advancing women; others — such as Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy — have stagnated or fallen behind. What can we learn from the successes and failures? One lesson is clear: The easy part is putting those progressive policies on the books; the hard part is convincing all parties — both the institution and the women — that they can work. One firm that seems to have made things work is New York’s Hughes Hubbard & Reed. With 24 percent women equity partners, it ranks highest in the Am Law 200 pack. It is also run by a woman. But the firm’s chair, Candace Beinecke, says the firm had been cultivating women long before she arrived. She says the firm took an activist stand in promoting diversity before the notion became popular: “When I came here in 1970, there was a woman partner [Amalya Kearse, now a judge on the 2nd U.S. Court Circuit of Appeals]. And she was a person of color.” Hughes Hubbard hired Kearse as a litigator — not just a trust and estates lawyer, Beinecke says — when “no one else would give her a job.” That story drives home a point made by several women: A firm’s success in promoting diversity today typically correlates with having had a leader with vision years ago. Take Davis Polk. With 20.7 percent women in its shareholder ranks, it has the highest percentage of women partners among the nation’s most profitable firms. Its first woman partner, Lydia Kess, credits former senior partner Samuel Pryor, now senior counsel, for having the “foresight to depart from historical norms.” She says Pryor made it a “clear objective to recruit women” and supported part-time arrangements, even in the mid-’70s. Davis Polk certainly departed from precedent when it elevated Kess to partner in 1971. A graduate of Brooklyn Law School’s night program, Kess was no starched Ivy Leaguer. When she arrived at the firm in 1964, she was already the mother of three. She is also an Orthodox Jew. “I grew up in the slums,” says Kess by phone from Israel, where she now lives. “There was nothing white-shoe about me, unless I put on white sneakers.” In 1968 Kess gave birth to her fourth child — becoming the first woman lawyer at the firm to have a baby. Less than one month after the delivery, she was back at work. “It never occurred to me not to go back full time,” she says. “I already had three children. After you have several children, the enormous emotional challenge of separating is not quite so daunting.” As her career soared, Kess’ personal life became more complicated. In 1970, just a year before she became a partner, she separated from her husband. And until she remarried in 1983, she was essentially a single mom. How did she manage? She says she had a “wonderful” baby-sitter who was available almost every day and provided a lot of overtime, too. She was also extremely organized: “I made a large part of my life completely routine. I picked the same order of meat and vegetables every week, and the menu never varied.” As for the additional challenge of being observant, she says she found the religious rules liberating. Because Friday evenings and Saturdays were reserved for reflection, “those days [were] taken out of the constant tension and activity,” she explains. “They were reserved for family. It was a wonderful time of renewal.” Though Kess must have stood out among her peers at the time, she says she always felt that Davis Polk valued talent above all else. “It’s really a meritocracy,” echoes Beverly Chase, who joined the partnership in 1985, becoming the third woman partner in Davis Polk’s history. Now head of its compensation committee, Chase says she didn’t expect to remain at the firm when she first arrived — “There was a reason they were called white-shoe firms. I thought this is so not the place for me” — but the firm’s changing demographics and equitable tone convinced her to stay. That meritocratic culture is also cited by Yukako Kawata, Davis Polk’s first Asian woman partner: “It comes down to something as corny as the fact that it’s fair.” But every firm claims to be a meritocracy. “We don’t make token women partners here” is a mantra chanted by practically every managing partner. What seems to set Davis Polk apart is that it has made an extra effort to retain its female lawyers. “Davis Polk is not a rigid place,” says Chase. “We fashion career paths for people.” As one former Davis Polk associate who is now a client puts it: “There are more women there on part time than anywhere else I’ve seen. It seems to go out of its way to find jobs for people who want to work part time.” Nora Jordan is a case in point. An unabashed cheerleader for Davis Polk’s part-time program, she confesses, “I would have left if there wasn’t part time.” Instead, Jordan now heads the firm’s 23-lawyer investment management group — and she achieved that despite working part time for 4 1/2 years. The mother of three girls — all born when she was an associate — Jordan was elevated to partner in 1995, less than two years after returning to the firm full time. She opted to go full time when her youngest was in nursery school. That change, she says, was difficult emotionally but easier logistically because she had two more days per week to do her work. As Kess had discovered, Jordan found baby-sitting was crucial. “I’ve had the same baby-sitter for 15 years.” Also important was her “very supportive husband,” who “believes in doing [housework] 50-50.” Though her husband is an investment banker, “he’s in charge of the groceries, organizing the summer camps, and all the [kids'] sports.” Jordan is a poster child for the wonders of part-time work. Besides being a shareholder at the fourth-most profitable firm in the country, she is unassuming, chatty and smart. And she’s a rising partner to boot, making The American Lawyer‘s “ 45 Under 45” list in January. According to Jordan, she didn’t plan for all this to happen; in fact, she didn’t focus on the possible repercussions of going part time for an extended period. “ I was surprised I made partner — but not because I was part time,” she says about the daunting odds of reaching the top. “I never thought being part time would hurt me.” Mainstreaming part-time work is a big part of Davis Polk’s success with women. “Part timers are not third-class citizens here,” insists Jordan. Of the 30 or so part timers now, she says, “we have told a number of them if they came back full time they would be back on [partnership] track.” Davis Polk’s arrangement is more equitable than other systems, adds Jordan, because it pays part timers by the hour. In other firms, she says, lawyers sign up to work three days a week but frequently end up having to work four or five days. But under the hourly scheme, she says, “there’s no resentment if you work longer.” Of course, Davis Polk is not infinitely solicitous to working moms. For example, part timers must return full time for two years before coming up for partnership. (Though the firm says that “several” lawyers have made the jump from part timer to partner, it has no records of the exact number.) Other firms have histories of progressive policies, of course. “Skadden was an innovator in part-time work,” says Sheila Birnbaum, a partner at New York’s Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. Currently 50-plus lawyers — all women — are in the part-time program, reports its director of attorney development, Jodie Garfinkle. But Skadden’s part-time program seems like a de facto mommy track. Unlike Davis Polk, which actively encourages some part timers to pursue partnership, the Skadden arrangement is seen as less convertible to a partnership track position. That might explain why Skadden’s percentage of women partners has remained pretty flat in the last 10 years. In 1993 Skadden had 15 percent female shareholders; today it has 14.6 percent. Birnbaum defends the firm by emphasizing how much Skadden has grown in the last decade; its actual number of women partners, she says, is one of the highest in the country (it now has 54 women partners; in 1993 it had 35). Over time, the percentage will go up, she predicts — adding that the progress might be slow, because “women still have child-rearing functions.” Maybe Skadden is just a victim of its own early success. Its percentage of women partners was in the double digits long before many other big firms came even remotely close. Several firms show over 100 percent improvement in the number of women equity partners: Cravath; Debevoise & Plimpton; Dewey Ballantine; and Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, as well as Davis Polk. But in this select list, Cravath still ranks near the bottom, with only 8.9 percent women equity partners. Measured by percentage or absolute numbers, Milbank Tweed finishes dead last among the nation’s most profitable firms. With only 6.9 percent female shareholders, Milbank lags behind both the national average (16 percent women partners, equity and nonequity combined) and the average for the 20 most profitable firms in the Am Law 100 (13.2 percent women equity partners). Milbank has no problem getting female law graduates to sign on (the current entering class is about 50 percent women), but the real challenge is getting them to stay. And its history of female partners seems particularly bumpy. Its statistics today (6.9 percent or seven women partners) are actually slightly worse than they were in 1988 (7.2 percent or eight women partners). Chairman Mel Immergut acknowledges that Milbank has a problem. “We decided a year ago that we want to do better at retaining women and attracting African Americans,” he says. Those two areas, he adds, are top priorities for the firm. As for the cause of Milbank’s poor record on women partners, Immergut is stumped: “I don’t ascribe any reason to it.” He explains, however, that a number of women partners have left in recent years for a variety of reasons — some relocated, some went in-house, some opted to spend more time with family. “Relatively small numbers have gone to other firms,” he adds. Whatever the cause, Immergut says he’s on the case. He’s revamped the firm’s diversity committee, initiated a formal mentoring program, and made part time available even to those who want to stay on the partnership train. And he’s confident that the firm’s culture is not the root of the problem. “We have a culture at this firm that wants people to succeed,” he says. “The culture works. It’s fine.” Some Milbank lawyers disagree. Michelle Quist Mumford, who left her third-year associate spot at Milbank in April, says her career nose-dived the moment she announced her pregnancy last year. It didn’t help, she notes, that she was the first pregnant associate in litigation, and that there are no women partners in the department’s New York office. To make matters worse, Mumford had to take time off because of a difficult first trimester. Though the litigation partners “were outwardly supportive,” she says, “they didn’t give me work; they took me off almost every big case.” Instead, she says, she was stuck doing document reviews. Being a pregnant second-year associate at Milbank, she reports, was “akin to [being] a leper in a public square — ignored, shunned, rejected.” Things didn’t improve after her pregnancy. After a four-month maternity leave, Mumford returned part time to Milbank in March. Again, she says, partners gave her no work: “I kept telling them I needed work, but got nothing.” First-years, she claims, were given more responsibility. So after five weeks of frustration — “I sat there all day surfing the Internet” — she resigned. But the real kicker, she adds, was that no one from Milbank’s much-touted diversity committee ever contacted her. In response to Mumford’s charges, Milbank issued a statement by partner Stephen Blauner that the firm does not comment on personnel matters of individual employees. The statement says the firm abides by its “legal and ethical duty to make hiring, work assignment, compensation, promotion, and other employment-related decisions on the basis of merit alone.” Further, it states, “any suggestion to the contrary is just plain wrong.” No matter who’s at fault, Mumford is not alone in her cynicism about Milbank’s commitment to work-life balance. “There was a feeling among the women that it was just lip service,” says one litigation associate, who asked not to be identified. “No one made an effort to make [the part-time option] work.” Another associate calls the part-time policy “a nonissue,” because New York’s litigation department has no women with kids anyway. But some women at Milbank have done just fine. Elizabeth Besio, a sixth-year partner in corporate finance, says that Milbank has “lots of enlightened guys.” Known as one of the more approachable partners in the firm — “I still think of myself as a goofball” — Besio says she has no problem fitting in at Milbank. “It’s not a boys’ club,” she says. “It’s not Misogynist Central.” But she admits that Milbank has to retain more women: “There’s not enough of us. But we’re pretty potent, and things will improve.” Can Milbank catch up with its peers this late in the game? Immergut seems to think so. He says the new work-life balance initiatives should fix the problem. “In the past, not many people were using the part-time arrangement,” he says. “We’re being aggressive in making sure that people know that it’s there and that it’s not an impediment to their career.” And the deadline for turning things around? “The sooner the better,” he replies. But Milbank partners should note that there are no quick fixes — especially when it comes to things as nuanced as culture, attitude and perception. Those intangibles may strike a particular chord with female lawyers. “Women and minorities tend to take themselves out of the running,” says Davis Polk’s Chase. “To persuade them to stick around, you have to convey to them that they’ve got a shot.” Firms might also consider conveying a degree of humanity. Says one former Sullivan & Cromwell associate who is now a client of several big firms: “My spin on [Davis Polk's success with women] is that they don’t mistreat people. They don’t grind people to the dirt. Generally partners there think people ought to have a life, see their families, and go to the opera.” In other words, the most lavish package of family-friendly policies in the world won’t work unless there’s the perceived will to make the changes stick. “It’s not a policy; it’s a mind-set,” says Beinecke of Hughes Hubbard. “I laugh when firms tell me they’re going to do this or that. It really has to start at the top, and you really have to believe in it.” Related chart: Measuring the Power — Ranking the most profitable firms by their percentage of women equity partners.

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