Meredith Jones Kingsley (left) and Puja Patel Lea

Atlanta firms promoted more lawyers to partner this year than last, continuing an upward trend, but the group’s demographics stayed remarkably consistent when it comes to their law schools and practice areas—and the continuing gender imbalance between men and women.

The Daily Report tracked 78 lawyers who made partner this year at large and midsize firms in Atlanta. That’s up from 62 last year, a 25 percent increase.

The figure includes promotions at big national firms such as King & Spalding and Alston & Bird, as well as regional and national firms with an Atlanta office, including Jones Day and Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, and midsize Atlanta firms like Parker Hudson Rainer & Dobbs and Rogers & Hardin.

The eight Am Law 100 and 200 general practice firms headquartered in Atlanta each increased their partner promotions nationally, from a total of 71 in 2017 to 86 this year—a 21 percent jump.

For those eight firms, 35 of the new partners—41 percent—were promoted in their Atlanta headquarters, the same percentage as the year before. Alston & Bird made the most Atlanta promotions (8), followed by King & Spalding (7), Morris Manning & Martin (6), Troutman Sanders, Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton and Eversheds Sutherland (4 apiece) and Arnall Golden and Smith Gambrell & Russell, with one apiece.

Still Fewer Women

Women continue to lag behind men in partner promotions. Only 31 percent of the new Atlanta partners were women, up slightly from 29 percent of last year’s class.

That tracks with national statistics. While women account for just over half of law school classes and 40 percent of first-year associates, that drops to just 30 percent of non-equity partners and only 19 percent of equity partners, according to the National Association of Women Lawyers.

Still, two newly promoted female partners in Atlanta, both in male-dominated practice areas, said they didn’t feel their gender was an issue.

Puja Patel Lea, an IP litigator at Troutman Sanders, and Meredith Jones Kingsley, who is on the white-collar litigation team at Alston & Bird, are prototypical new partners in many respects.

In addition to being litigators, both are 2009 law school graduates. That’s the most common graduation year for the group, and, like about two-thirds of their peers, they attended Southern law schools—the University of Georgia for Lea and Wake Forest University for Kingsley.

Lea and Kingsley said taking initiative early on and having supportive mentors were key to their advancement—and they both have practices that they enjoy.

“I find IP litigation really fun,” said Lea, calling it the “perfect blend” of the art of lawyering, which takes “persuasion and creativity” and science.

Kingsley’s work on cases for international clients subject to U.S. enforcement actions has led to travel in Asia and Europe, as well as some not-so-glamorous U.S. cities. “There’s never a dull moment,” she said.

Both said they received good opportunities early on and ran with them.

Within a couple of months of joining Alston & Bird as a first-year, Kingsley said, she was working on a big antitrust case that spawned government investigations “all over the world” as well as multi-district litigation.

“It’s about getting the opportunity and not screwing it up,” she said, adding that three mentors, Bill Jordan, Peter Kontio and Mike Brown, now a federal judge, were a big help.

From early on, those mentors included her in client negotiation meetings with the Department of Justice and on trips for key witness interviews and to collect data needed for the defense.

“They take seriously their obligation to bring young people along,” she said. “It makes a difference in a big place like this. You’ve got to have cheerleaders.”

Kingsley added that her parents were both lawyers, and her mother—also a litigator—was a powerful role model who had already broken gender barriers, trying cases in court while pregnant, for example. “I think that shaped my perception about progressing on my path—to just be a very good lawyer,” she said.

Lea’s experience was similar, even though she immigrated from India as a child and had no lawyers in her family. Like Kingsley, she said she knew she wanted to be a litigator as a first-year associate at Troutman. When she was assigned to a patent litigation case early on, Lea said.  “I fell in love with the subject matter and hit it off with the group. The rest was history.”

“I got to do some really cool things as an associate,” Lea said, adding that she’s appeared in court several times on high-stakes patent litigation cases before the U.S. Court of International Trade.

The best piece of advice she received from her mentors, who, like Kingsley’s, were male, Lea said: “Don’t be afraid to ask for opportunities to do the thing you want to do.”

Demographics

Litigation remained the most common practice area for the new Atlanta partners, with 17 in that practice, and the number of lawyers with intellectual property practices doubled (15 promotions), making it the second-most common practice. The number of promotions in other top areas like real estate, corporate and securities and labor and employment law were about the same as last year.

The path to partnership continues to lengthen. Almost half of the newly promoted Atlanta lawyers made partner in eight or nine years, with nine years being most common.

As in past years, the new partners typically were graduates of Southern law schools, with the University of Georgia being the most common (10), followed by Emory University (8), Vanderbilt University (7) and Georgia State University (6). Five each had law degrees from the Universities of Alabama, Florida or Virginia.

The Gender Gap

The time when lawyers are considered for partner, typically in their mid-30s, is also when many are starting families or have young children. One common theory is that women drop out to raise families, but a Lucas Group white paper released last week says women lawyers are just as ambitious as their male cohort, and firms need to establish clear gender-equity targets for partnership elections.

Lucas Group places the same number of men as women in in-house jobs, commonly considered to offer better hours than firms, said Ansley Tucker, a recruiter in its Atlanta office. “Better hours are appealing to everyone. We haven’t really seen that to be gender-specific,” she said.

Having a clear business development plan for aspiring partners is a key way firms can support their associates, Tucker said. Associates know by their third or fourth year if they enjoy business development, and “that’s what makes someone an equity partner,” she said, adding that female associates seeking a move to another firm ask her how many women equity partners it has and if it offers a program for building business.

While associates at large firms can make partner without their own book of business, client relations become increasingly important as they become more senior.

“It takes initiative,” Lea said. “For younger associates the initiative is identifying and anticipating the needs of the cases you’re working on. As you progress, the focus is more on client service—and understanding how the legal work we’re doing fits into their business.”

Firm Support for New Parents

While Kingsley was being considered for partner, she was pregnant with her first child and then out on maternity leave for 18 weeks, and she also took on a high-profile federal murder case pro bono.

Alston & Bird fully supported her taking full maternity leave and encouraged her to take the murder case—defending a man, Aaron Richardson, who allegedly tried to assassinate a federal judge in Florida—even though both meant her billable hours dropped quite a bit, she said.

“I truly believe at Alston & Bird that they have invested in me and take the long view,” Kingsley said.