"Lean in" is the current mantra for women in the business world, thanks to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. She encourages women to be ambitious, to take risks, even when they are scared or worried about how their work will mesh with their family obligations. It's an admirable notion, and if I were just getting out of college, something that I would embrace.
But some industries, like Big Law, don't just need women lawyers who are hungry and smart and willing to bill punishingly long hours alongside their male colleagues. Firms also need to make top-down, institutional changes to achieve greater gender parity and advancement. (Currently, women constitute 15 percent of the equity partnership at the big firms and half of the associates.)
One way to address this issue is to adopt an idea proposed by American Bar Association president Laurel Bellows and the ABA's Task Force on Gender Equity. (The task force has a multipoint program to help women lawyers make sure they are paid fairly; go to americanbar.org for more information.)
Bellows and the task force argue that if a law firm's compensation committee only has white men on it, firms should appoint one or two of their most successful women and/or minorities to the committee. This group is the sanctum sanctorum of law firm pay and power. Yet women occupy only 2.3 out of 12.8 seats (18 percent) on average on law firm compensation committees, according to our survey of 92 Am Law 100 firms ("The Law of Small Numbers," January).
Why appoint women and minorities? "It would be rare that a women's perspective wouldn't shed some light on the manner in which all candidates, men and women, are evaluated," says Bellows. "Compensation will be fairer, appear fairer, and encourage women and people of color to stay at the firm." These appointments are already being made at a few firms. Take Reed Smith. In 2001 the firm amended its partnership agreement to allow the executive committee (which doubles as its comp committee) to appoint three at-large members. (Before, the nonmanagement members of the committee had to be voted on by the partnership.)
Those appointments had a positive effect, as more women were inspired over the next decade to run for the firm's elected spots as they opened up. Four of the six women currently holding voting seats on the executive committee obtained their seats in an open election. "We needed to get the flywheel moving," says global managing partner Greg Jordan. Women would have been voted on to the executive committee eventually anyway, he says. "But it happened faster" this way, according to Jordan: "Talent rises, but we created the pathway."
While critics might call these appointments a form of affirmative action, I think they are more of an honest acknowledgment that Big Law has a woman problem. Women lawyers have flooded into firms over the last 20 years, and for a host of reasons, they haven't reached parity with men when they hit the partnership level. Making these appointments seems like an interim—but necessary—step.