Mark Wasserman, Eversheds Sutherland, Atlanta (Photo: John Disney/ALM) Mark Wasserman, Eversheds Sutherland, Atlanta (Photo: John Disney/ALM)

The U.S. branch of Eversheds Sutherland has adopted a bold new initiative to transform the gender balance of its partnership, aiming to have at least 30 percent of its total partners and its equity partners be women by 2021.

Only a handful of other large firms have publicly set similar 30 percent targets—in an industry where only 19 percent of equity partners, on average, are women. Eversheds Sutherland US has launched a firmwide Women’s Leadership Initiative to help it reach its goal.

“As a profession we’ve made progress in a lot of ways, but we’re still falling short. To put a number on this is a way to get everyone’s attention,” said Mark Wasserman, the U.S. CEO for Eversheds Sutherland.

“To move the needle, everyone in the firm needs a target,” Wasserman said. “We use metrics in other ways—[that] we want to have revenue of X and work of Y—so why not do so about something as important as our diversity and inclusion numbers?”

Publicly announcing the goal, he acknowledged, “does put extra pressure on it.”

That was intentional, he said, noting that the firm could have kept the 30 percent target internal and known only to the executive committee and practice group leaders.

“It holds us accountable,” he said. “I think that’s a good thing.”

The National Association of Women Lawyers challenged large firms back in 2006 to hit the 30 percent equity partner target for women lawyers, but despite the plethora of conversations, ink and initiatives devoted to the issue, the figure has ticked up from only 16 percent to 19 percent in the past decade.

In NAWL’s 2017 survey, women made up 19 percent of equity partners and 30 percent of nonequity partners, on average, for the 90 out of 200 Am Law firms that responded.

Kristan Rizzolo, Eversheds, Washington, D.C. (Courtesy photo) Kristan Rizzolo, Eversheds, Washington, D.C. (Courtesy photo)

Eversheds Sutherland’s U.S. figures are in line with the industry’s. Right now, 21 percent of its equity partners and 23 percent of total partners are women, said Kristan Rizzolo, a Washington tax partner who is chairing the firm’s new Women’s Leadership Initiative.

Eversheds Sutherland US has about 420 lawyers, of which 180 are partners. For nonpartners, 44 percent are women, meaning 34 percent of its lawyers are women overall.

“I know it’s ambitious,” Rizzolo said of the new goal. “I think we can do it.”

The biggest challenge, she said, will be “getting people to recognize that we have to have a new approach. We can’t just continue what we’ve done before.”

“Our management is 100 percent behind this—and that is gold,” she added.

Eversheds Sutherland’s international branch set a similar 30 percent target for women partners in March. The firm, which combined in February 2017, is structured as a company limited by guarantee, with no financial integration between the two arms.

Only two other large firms with a significant U.S. presence have publicly set similar targets. Norton Rose Fulbright announced in late 2014 a goal of 30 percent women partners by 2020 and Hogan Lovells is aiming to hit that goal by 2022.

A handful of London-based international firms have done the same, with a deadline of the end of this year: Herbert Smith Freehills, Pinsent Masons and Berwin Leighton, which combined with U.S. firm Bryan Cave in April to become Bryan Cave Berwin Leighton.

However, those firms set the 30 percent target for total women partners—not equity partners.

Naming a Target

It’s still rare for law firms to openly quantify their goals for women’s inclusion.

“It’s new to me,” said Lisa Kirby of Diversity Lab, who heads a different Big Law women’s inclusion initiative, the Mansfield Rule, aimed at increasing women in leadership at the 44 participating large firms. “I think it’s great that they’re setting a specific goal to work towards.”

The Mansfield Rule also uses a 30 percent target, but for the percentage of women in a firm’s candidate pool for leadership positions. Research has shown that 30 percent is a large enough percentage to give an effort critical mass, Kirby explained.

The Mansfield Rule is one of the winning ideas from an innovative Women in Law Hackathon that Diversity Lab organized in 2016. The pilot class launched a year ago, and results will be unveiled around September, Kirby said.

A UK initiative, The 30% Club, uses the same metric with the aim of increasing women’s representation on boards of FTSE 100 companies. Since its 2010 launch, the percentage of women on these boards has increased from 12.5 percent to 28.9 percent.

One key factor to achieving that, the group has said, is having a “measurable goal with a defined timetable.”

Eversheds Initiative

For Eversheds Sutherland US to hit its 30 percent target by 2021, it must increase its female equity partner ranks by almost half.

That is where the new Women’s Leadership Initiative comes in. Eversheds Sutherland US already had a women’s initiative, Rizzolo said, Eversheds Sutherland Women’s Group, but it was run locally, with each office determining its programming.

“This is a  more comprehensive program,” she said. The nine-person leadership board includes Wasserman, diversity partner Vanessa Scott and other high-level firm leaders.

To help achieve the 30 percent partner target, the firm is pairing its senior women associates with sponsors, who can be either male or female.

Eversheds Sutherland US already has a mentoring program that assigns every attorney an adviser when they join the firm, but the sponsor, likely an equity partner in their practice area, can connect them with business development opportunities, Rizzolo said.

“A sponsor has the ability to make sure they can get the business, the good projects,” she said.

The firm is particularly focused on promoting it homegrown lawyers, Wasserman said, because statistically there are not as many women as men on the lateral partner market.

Last year Eversheds Sutherland U.S. promoted five women to partner out of a class of 17—29.4 percent.

“We’re looking at promotions, who’s in the pipeline, how those women are doing and compensation, to see what those numbers tell us and what we can do to improve them, if they need improvement,” Rizzolo said.

The firm also is expanding its business development training. “Our women have been saying we really need a program about this,” Rizzolo said. “We’ll invite the men, too.”

Like most big firms, Eversheds Sutherland US already offers its lawyers professional development courses—more than 100, in fact—on substantive areas of law and topics such as trial advocacy, negotiation and management skills.

The first training will be July 9, possibly on the topic of “mindset and grit,” Rizzolo said, and the sponsorships will roll out at about that time.