Lisa Ferri. (Courtesy photo)
Bringing more women and people of color into law firm partnerships and leadership positions will require systemic changes to the law firm business model, panelists at a discussion at Mayer Brown Manhattan offices agreed Thursday.
The proportions of women and diverse attorneys in positions of power in the legal industry have barely budged in 10 years, despite law firms’ pledge to change that stagnation, the speakers said.
“Women have been about 50 percent of law school classes for 25 years now,” said Arin Reeves, founder of the research and consulting firm Nextions. “We’re not quite cracking the 20 percent partner mark.”
Reeves said that many law firms had made relatively easy changes, such as giving new mothers extra benefits and training people to recognize implicit bias, but the legal industry is “at a point where the next level of change is going to require structural changes.”
Lisa Ferri, who leads Mayer Brown’s IP practice in New York, agreed that all the diversity training and other coaching that firms have offered over the past decade haven’t really altered the demographic makeup of law firm partnerships.
“The rules that we have were created by men—by white men,” Ferri said. “Women and diverse attorneys are being asked to function and thrive in this system that wasn’t created for them.”
She said that law firms’ measures of success—high billable hours for associates and origination credits for partners—don’t necessarily reflect women’s strengths.
A study released last week by Major, Lindsey & Africa and ALM Intelligence found that average compensation for male law partners is 44 percent higher than women partners’ pay. According to the report, origination is the key culprit, with male partners reporting average origination of $2.59 million, compared with a $1.73 million average for female partners.
Ferri said after the panel that firms need to rethink how origination credits are awarded so that they are shared more. She also suggested borrowing the “Rooney Rule” from the National Football League, which requires league teams to interview minority candidates for top coaching jobs.
Mayer Brown’s IP team in New York is 50 percent women associates and 50 percent women partners, Ferri said.
If law firms promote women and people of color simply to fill a quota, they’re only setting those lawyers up for failure, said Adrienne Gonzalez, a former Kaye Scholer lawyer who was senior counsel at Bristol-Myers Squibb before becoming leader of the company’s Black Organization for Leadership and Development.
“You’re not going to get to partner and you’re not going to get to the management committee if you don’t have business,” Gonzalez said.
Reeves described a successful initiative at an unnamed firm in which women lawyers worked together to generate business and shared the origination credits. She said that when men were added to the group, it was not successful.
Law firms seem to want to fix this problem, the panelists said. Data released this week by the New York City Bar Association, which showed that 3.6 percent of partners are black women and 2.5 percent are Hispanic women, was given to managing partners, rather than diversity officers, for the first time.
Gabrielle Brown, director of diversity and inclusion of the New York City bar, said that she’s gotten a positive response from the managing partners so far.
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