(Credit: ALM)

Cynthia Lange was fully prepared to discuss her plans for a family when she interviewed for an associate position at immigration firm Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Loewy in 1986. Professors at her alma mater, Southwestern Law School, had warned female students that hiring partners would ask them outright if they intended to get pregnant and leave.

But name partner Peter Loewy never asked about future children during that interview, said Lange, now a partner in the firm’s Silicon Valley office and member of its executive committee. Once she had the job, Loewy, now senior counsel at the firm, offered her the same opportunities as male colleagues and championed her promotion to partner after just five years.

“It starts from the top,” said Lange of the firm’s inclusive approach. “Even 30 years ago, they were fabulous at recognizing women.”

Fragomen doesn’t have a specific program to recruit and retain women attorneys, but the firm has organically evolved into a place women want to work, Lange said. The New York-based firm once again topped The National Law Journal’s Women In Law Scorecard, which ranks the nation’s largest law firms according to their inclusion of women attorneys. Fragomen has held the top spot since the report launched in 2011, and in 2015, 62 percent of its 519 attorneys were women. Women accounted for 48 percent of partners.

This year’s ranking was based on survey responses from 254 of the nation’s 350 largest law firms by head count, as determined by the NLJ. The Women in Law rank was calculated by adding each firm’s percentage of women attorneys with its percentage of women partners — a formula that gives extra weight to women in the partnership ranks.

Among the 254 respondent firms, women made up 34 percent of all attorneys in 2015. But women were harder to come by at the partnership level: Just above 21 percent of partners were women, and they accounted for 17 percent of equity partners and 27 percent of nonequity partners. Overall, women comprised 45 percent of associates at the respondent firms. Only 22 respondent firms had a female attorney percentage of 40 or more, while women made up less than 30 percent of attorneys at 79 firms.

Taken together, the respondent firms were nearly on par with national trends. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 35 percent of attorneys nationwide are women.

THE LAW IS A LAGGARD

But the legal industry lags behind many other white-collar professions in gender parity. Women are nearly 47 percent of the domestic workforce and 52 percent of all workers in management and professional occupations; almost 60 percent of accountants and auditors are women; and women make up 38 percent of physicians and surgeons, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports.

After Fragomen at No. 1, firms with 200 or fewer attorneys round out the top five on the Women In Law Scorecard. They are: Foley & Mansfield of Minneapolis; Ford & Harrison, an employment firm with a national presence; Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete of Atlanta; and Best Best & Krieger of Riverside, California.

On the whole, intellectual property firms fared the worst on the Women In Law ranking, grabbing three of the bottom four ranks on the list. They were Brinks Gilson & Lione at No. 251; Irell & Manella at 253; and Novak Druce Connolly Bove + Quigg, which has since largely been absorbed by Polsinelli, at No. 254.

Irell & Manella of Los Angeles reported that 22 percent of its attorneys in 2015 were women, as were 9 percent of partners. The firm declined to comment on the challenges intellectual property firms face in recruiting women, but IP lawyers have long pointed to the smaller pool of women graduating from science and engineering undergraduate programs.

Hogan Lovells, the sixth-largest firm based in the U.S. with more than 2,500 attorneys, was the highest ranking megafirm, landing at No. 7. Nearly 48 percent of its attorneys are women, and 25 percent of its partners are women.

“I think we’ve done a very good job of identifying and sponsoring and bringing along women associates and junior partners into significant positions within the firm, into relationships and with clients, and into management,” said partner Catherine Stetson, co-director of the firm’s appellate practice and a member of its board. Women compose one-third of the firm’s board and are the heads or co-heads of four of the firm’s six practice groups. Nineteen of the firm’s 46 offices are led by women.

“The women coming out of law school pay attention to whether there are women in management, whether there are women who are the leads in their practice groups, whether there are women with significant client relationships who are getting in the pitch rooms and landing the business,” Stetson said. “It means something to them to have that trajectory and have something to aim for — to see women in those positions.”

Stephanie Adler-Paindiris.

Four of the top 10 firms on the Women in Law ranking focus on employment law: Ford & Harrison at No. 3; Constangy at No. 4; Jackson Lewis at No. 8; and Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart at No. 9. It’s not surprising that employment law firms are more welcoming toward women given the subject matter they deal with, said Stephanie Adler-Paindiris, a co-leader of Jackson Lewis’ class actions and complex litigation practice group.

“So much of my practice is not only litigating but giving advice to other companies about how to treat employees fairly, how to recruit and retain the best talent, and how to fairly and clearly discipline or performance-manage their employees,” she said. “Because that’s what we do, it’s natural that it seeps into our own organization.”

Additionally, the employment law world — among both attorneys and clients — tends to be collegial, Adler-Paindiris said. She joined the firm’s Orlando office 15 years ago as a single mother with two young children, and said she could not have been successful on the job had her colleagues declined to help. “There’s an understanding from above about the importance of family and people’s lives,” she said.

Jackson Lewis has also promoted several part-time attorneys to partners, which has helped to retain women, Adler-Paindiris said. Similarly, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison named a number of partners who have alternative work arrangements during the past decade, said deputy chair Valerie Radwaner. At No. 31, Paul Weiss is the highest-ranking large New York firm on the Women in Law Scorecard. Forty percent of its attorneys are women, as are 22 percent of partners.

SENDING A MESSAGE

Having a woman in the No. 2 executive position sends a strong message to other lawyers in the firm and to clients that Paul Weiss values women, Radwaner said. “We have to provide opportunities,” she said. “We have to give women visibility in the community, encourage them to take leadership positions and run practice groups. We encourage them to say, ‘Yes.’ That’s how they become leaders.”

Like Hogan Lovells and Jackson Lewis, Paul Weiss offers programs designed to help women attorneys advance their careers, with panels on topics such as effective communication and business development. Jackson Lewis encourages its women attorneys to forge closer ties with women clients at firm-sponsored events such as cooking classes and pool parties, Adler-Paindiris said. Hogan Lovells holds a Global Women’s Executive Summit every year and a half that brings together attorneys with female general counsel and other women corporate executives from around the world to discuss current business issues.

But programs alone don’t create meaningful change, Radwaner said. “At the end of the day, the program mixed with the tone from the top is really what I think makes the difference,” she said.