When two dozen female lawyers gathered in Tallahassee at a dinner for Florida State University’s female law dean a few weeks ago, the host suggested they all share anecdotes from their law school days or practice.
Nancy Linnan, chair of the board of directors at Carlton Fields, at first expected it to be a hokey exercise for the multigenerational group. But their differing experiences quickly underscored how the business of law is changing for women.
“The younger people … couldn’t believe that just being unwelcome had ever been part of the law school experience. They had been treated as co-equals all the way through,” Linnan said. “There seemed to be a generational gap and the older group was thrilled to hear that people just coming through were amazed that it had ever been any different.”
It was a welcome moment in a legal market that last year was forced to address a survey conducted by the Florida Bar Young Lawyer’s Division that found pervasive gender bias within the state’s law firms. The survey sampled more than 400 Young Lawyers Division female members and found that respondents felt held back by gender stereotypes, with 43 percent of respondents reporting they had experienced gender bias during their career. The study found 42 percent cited difficulties balancing work and life responsibilities, 32 percent reported a lack of advancement opportunities, and 17 percent said they had resigned due to the inability to advance.
Since the study, at least three Florida firms have appointed women as firm managing partners, and lawyers have noticed an anecdotal increase in the number of women rising to leadership.
A little over a handful of Am Law 200 firms are led by female managing partners. Speaking with women law firm and office leaders in Florida, one trait stood out: Despite a plethora of statistics and anecdotes that point to evidence of gender bias, women who have obtained leadership positions were upbeat about the progress for women in law and the opportunities that exist for those who follow them. The world looks different depending where one sits, after all.
The critical study prompted the Florida Bar to begin offering an online continuing legal education course on the lack of gender equality in the legal profession, based on presentations around the state by former bar president Ramon Abadin, who had called himself naive for being surprised by the study.
In the 18 months since the study became public, visible change has occurred. Mayanne Downs has become head of GrayRobinson and the highest-ranking female law firm leader in the state. Brinkley Morgan attorney Roberta G. Stanley secured the managing partner title at her firm, and Rebecca Bratter was promoted to deputy managing shareholder at Greenspoon Marder.
In addition, West Palm Beach lawyer Michelle Suskauer was elected to lead the Florida Bar as president starting in June 2018. And Patricia Menendez-Cambo became a Greenberg Traurig vice president and chair of its global practice.
Moreover, Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman opened a new Miami office and installed former Boies Schiller partner Jennifer Altman as founding managing partner. Likewise, national litigation firm Manion Gaynor & Manning installed former K&L Gates partner Rebecca Kibbe as partner in charge of its new Miami office. Altman calls founding managing partnerships a greater advancement over a typical office managing partner position because of added recruiting and startup responsibilities.
Women actually held leadership roles in Florida before the release of the study in 2016. Patricia Lebow became the founding and managing partner of the West Palm Beach office of Broad and Cassel in 1983. Lila Jaber has been leading Gunster’s government affairs practice since 2010. (She was also appointed regional managing shareholder of the firm in September 2016, several months after the study was released.) Women lead some offices at Akerman and elsewhere throughout Florida. Four of Tampa-based Carlton Fields’ 10 offices—New York, Miami, Orlando and Tallahassee—are led or co-led by women. Seven of that firm’s 20 board members are women, including the chief operating officer and the chair.
But that doesn’t mean women don’t continue to face gender bias. Nneka Uzodinma, an associate with Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin’s Fort Lauderdale office and a former Miami-Dade prosecutor, laid out some bothersome courtroom examples: Male lawyers who assume she isn’t an attorney and ask where her court reporting equipment is, or ask her to get them coffee. A few years ago one lawyer physically moved her out of his way, then told her she was beautiful and shouldn’t be a prosecutor.
“You have a few instances where people have earned these positions, and people obviously want to celebrate that because it’s important for people to see this,” said Leora Freire, a shareholder at Richmond Greer in West Palm Beach and the immediate past president of the Florida Association for Women Lawyers. “But overall, the numbers are going be in the range that they were a year and a half ago. I don’t know that there is systemic change that quickly.”
Like other women interviewed, Freire said even in her own experience, she generally has seen a difference in how male lawyers of different generations relate to her. She said men attending law school with an equal number of women are more apt to treat female lawyers as equals.
Meanwhile, the battle for equality is being fought on multiple fronts.
Managing shareholder Marie Tomassi has led Tampa-based Trenam Law for four years. More women are now earning leadership opportunities in part because of more workplace flexibility—both in hours and the ability to work from home,, she said.
“Law firms have done a better job of retaining their valuable talent,” said Tomassi, who over the years has seen many bright, top female law school graduates start at large firms but leavefor less time-demanding jobs. “You see more women in leadership positions because you have a higher number of women staying at law firms long enough to reach leadership.”
Societal evolution in family roles also plays a part in the lives of the women who have reached leadership roles. Bratter and Stanley, both firm leaders, said tangible logistical support from their spouses played a big role in facilitating their careers.
“Thank God that I have such a loving and supportive husband who adjusted his schedule so that he could share in the parental responsibilities with me,” Bratter said.
With working women’s needs in mind, Bratter’s husband, an OB/GYN, opens his practice early on one day and stays open later on another, making it easier for patients to schedule appointments around work.
“You have the pool of talent and ability, but I also think that the profession has become more diverse and more inclusive,” said Carlton Fields’ Linnan, who, in addition to being chair of the firm’s board of directors is also head of its government law and consulting practice. Earlier this year, Linnan handed over her former position as the Tallahassee office managing shareholder to another woman, Christine Davis Graves.
Pillsbury’s Altman points to the variety of cultural bar associations—Asian, Black, Cuban, Venezuelan Russian, LGBT—as a sign of more inclusivity. In time it will translate to all aspects of law practice, Altman said, including who becomes partner, who becomes managing partner, or who gets a spot on a committee.
“If you look at my contemporaries or younger, there’s a greater implicit acceptance of diversity in general,” Altman said. “Things that were really so rare when I started practicing are very commonplace now.”
Although compensation rates clearly show women lagging behind men, women are gaining some ground. A different study, the 2016 Partner Compensation Survey, found that at large firms male partners continue to significantly outpace female partners in compensation. The average differential of 44 percent was slightly lower than the 47 percent differential reported in 2014. But while male partners reported average originations of nearly $2.6 million—a gain of 18 percent over 2014—women partners posted a gain of 40 percent, rising to $1.7 million in that time frame.
Differences in compensation levels, according to the study, are in part due to the fact that women are not equally represented in practice areas with the highest compensation and focus within Big Law, such as banking, intellectual property and litigation. Women made up only 35 percent of Am Law 200 litigation departments, 31 percent of banking and taxation practices, and accounted for 27 and 23 percent of IP and M&A teams, respectively. Niche practice groups, such as education, family law, health care, immigration and labor and employment, have the greatest proportion of women.
Tammy Knight, an equity partner at Holland & Knight in mergers and acquisitions who is on the firm’s director’s committee and chairs its initiative to increase women partners, said many women often don’t choose M&A because the hours are unpredictable and difficult to schedule around.
A growing number of niche organizations are now helping women network for practice referrals, meet clients and otherwise develop their books of business. Yet, taking advantage of business development opportunities while achieving a work-life balance can be more challenging for women, Altman said. They often feel frowned upon when they make choices relating to family, and they feel guilty no matter what.
“There’s a difference inherently in how you mentor women lawyers,” Altman said. “You have to get them to the place that works for them.”