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Women partners shelve work-life balance talk, say money and power needed for real change

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Photo of Rachel Zahorsky
by Marc Hauser.

Sullivan Hill managing partner Madeline Cahill-Boley doesn’t want to talk about work-life balance. Neither does Lisa Borsook, executive partner of Canadian law firm WeirFoulds. Nor does Patricia Gillette, a rainmaking partner at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, whose book of business ranges from $5 million to $10 million.

Although greater acceptance of family-friendly work environments remains a dominant issue in the legal profession, women law firm heavyweights convened in San Francisco on Thursday to talk about two topics too often considered the domains of their male peers: money and power.

“Part time, flex time and mentoring are comfortable and familiar territories for women lawyers. They’re soft, safe subjects as far as men are concerned because they think that’s what women talk about: Women raise families and aren’t as confident, so they need mentors,” Gillette told a room of female attorneys and one male managing partner at Ark Group & Managing Partner’s West Coast Women Legal 2013. “We’re told: ‘Go to your pigeonholes and talk about those issues, and us men will run the firm.’

“Good talks have turned bad because women aren’t leading firms,” Gillette said. “We have to start talking about economic and institutional power.”

Panelists—including general counsel, law school professors and consultants—called for harder looks at gender-biased compensation statistics and origination credit and a greater representation of women at the top echelons of law firms. Speakers also urged women lawyers to carefully study the business operations at their firms and within the profession.

“Incentives provided by law firm metrics are out of whack,” said Catherine “Kit” Chaskin, a partner at Reed Smith. “Firms may say they encourage teamwork and giving away [origination] credit, but the only people who do that are women. The big silverback rainmakers who hoard credit are not being punished for keeping that credit to themselves.”

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