ABA Journal

Meet 6 law firm leaders, each with a different story, each at the top of her game

Reporters’ phone calls steadily interrupted Madeline Cahill-Boley’s first days as managing partner of midsize, San Diego-based law firm Sullivan Hill Lewin Rez & Engel in 2008. And while she knew it would be a topic broached during the interviews, Cahill-Boley wasn’t prepared for the surge of questions about her gender.

Forget about plans for her firm’s future. “What is it like to be a woman in charge?” they all wanted to know.

The subject of women in leadership may not be new, but it’s hard to think of a time when it was hotter than today. From Princeton University professor Anne-Marie Slaughter, author of the widely discussed Atlantic article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” to Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO and champion of the “lean in” movement, women who appear to “have it all” are branded heroes, fraudsters and inhuman cyborgs unburdened by mortal necessities like sleep.

The intensity of these debates is especially fiery in the legal profession. For while conditions for female lawyers at law firms have improved since Arabella Mansfield was granted admission to practice law in Iowa in 1869, droves of female law grads still steer clear of partner-track and leadership positions early in their careers. According to a NALP 2012 study, women constitute just under 20 percent of law firm partnership ranks—a number that shrivels in the top level of leadership. And it’s considerably worse for minority women, who make up only 2.16 percent of the nation’s law firm partners.

“You’re right, it’s few and far between,” is how Ngozi C. Okorafor, president of the Black Women Lawyers’ Association of Greater Chicago, puts it. “We were making many more inroads toward having minorities and a significant number of black women as associates in years past than now. The economy has forced large law firms to shed associates and partners and, in my view, a disproportionate number were minorities.”

For Nicole Auerbach, a former partner at Katten Muchin Rosenman who left to co-found Valorem Law Group in Chicago, the answer is simple. “Many women fear that if they do lean in, they will fall on their faces in the attempt,” Auerbach says. “When institutional barriers require many women to learn to lean in and leap to succeed, the path to the top is perceived as not inviting, rewarding or attainable.”

The six law firm leaders featured in this article appear to have learned to lean, leap and launch themselves to the highest echelons of law firm hierarchies. They represent that small number of women running midsize-to-major law firms in North America; and yet each of their stories is unique, underlining the truth that paths to the top do not follow the same map.

Click here to read the rest of “Women in Charge” from the June issue of the ABA Journal.

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