Do women’s initiatives work?

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Sedgwick Women’s Forum Tea on May 8 in New York City, firm lawyers mingled with clients and other key contacts. Among the prominent businesswomen at this year’s annual afternoon tea were Jean Ford (left) of JFord Consulting and guest speaker Joyce Roché, who spoke about her book, “The Empress Has No Clothes: Conquering Self-Doubt to Embrace Success.” Photo by Len Irish.

In March 2007, when Sachnoff & Weaver merged with Reed Smith, Catherine Chaskin was a junior partner with no book of business. When the head of the women’s initiative in the firm’s Chicago office left for a job at a corporate law department, Chaskin leapt at the opportunity to lead the program. She took the job, she admits, “as a lifeline,” hoping that it would make her own job more secure. But she ran with it. And today Chaskin, a former member of the firm’s executive committee, is global chair of Reed Smith’s Women’s Initiative Network.

Chaskin began by getting statistics on women at the firm. She found that gender parity existed for junior associates but not for more senior associates. With the support of the firm’s management, she sought ways to correct that. She initiated what she called the “Big Cheese Lunches” for female lawyers and senior management leaders. Those meetings helped women at the firm to become more knowledgeable about the firm’s leaders and direction, but they also enabled Chaskin to forge a deeper relationship between her program and Gregory Jordan, the firm’s global managing partner (and the father of two daughters).

Chaskin had decided to focus not on the fate of lawyers who were struggling, but rather on women going full steam ahead. She focused especially on fourth-year associates because that was a critical year for attrition among women. She developed a partner-promotion-positioning questionnaire that required female associates to think about what they needed to do to become equity partners. The questionnaire was designed to provoke self-examination with loaded queries like “What’s your relationship with your practice group leader?” and “Is there anyone on the executive committee who would recognize your face?”

“We began looking at the firm in terms of pipelines,” Chaskin explains, initially focusing on getting associates to become equity partners. Now there are pipelines not only for becoming an equity partner but also for getting women into firm leadership.

Chaskin also provoked change in the firm’s evaluation system, which was not competency-based. Fourth-year female associates were taught how to write effective self-evaluations, how to understand credit allocation and how to develop business. According to Chaskin, the Women’s Initiative Network got women at the firm to understand what they needed to be doing to advance to equity partnership, and the firm’s women became savvier.

Last year, Chaskin revisited the firm’s statistics on women and found that, on average, Reed Smith had 40 percent female associates in most major practice groups, which generally held up across offices and years out of law school. Women now account for 20 percent of equity partners, 35 percent of the executive committee (which also decides compensation and promotions to partnership), 25 percent of practice group leaders and department heads, and 10 percent of the firm’s most highly compensated partners.

Women’s initiatives are a very commonplace fixture in BigLaw these days. But few of them have resulted in the kinds of gains Chaskin reports at Reed Smith. A survey of the nation’s top 200 law firms by the National Association of Women Lawyers’ charitable and educational arm, the NAWL Foundation, shows that 97 percent have some form of women-specific development program. Yet, women account for only 15 percent of equity partners and only 4 percent of managing partners in the nation’s largest firms.

“What such initiatives actually do, and the impact they have on women in firms,” observes the NAWL report, published in November, “is all too often not clear and, at worst, open to criticism bordering on cynicism.”

The survey shows that networking was one of the more common initiatives, with 96 percent of the firms surveyed saying they sponsored some form of networking event for women. Networking events between women in the firm and female clients occur at 87 percent of the firms. Flexible work schedules (nearly 95 percent) or part-time work schedules (97 percent) were the most common activities pursued by women’s initiatives.

About 92 percent reported sponsoring programs on business development skills and activities, but leadership training (61 percent) and mentoring programs (67 percent) lagged far behind. Only 33 percent of the surveyed firms focused on succession planning with an eye toward gender. While “monitoring of promotion rates” for female lawyers compared to male lawyers is done by about three-quarters of firms, only 39 percent reported monitoring work assignments for female lawyers compared to male lawyers.

Moreover, the NAWL found that few of the women’s initiatives were particularly well-funded. In the top 100 firms, the average budget for women’s initiatives was $119,000. For the second 100 firms, the average expenditure dropped to $48,000.

Cynthia Calvert, founder of the consulting group Workforce 21C and a lawyer in Ellicott City, Md., who specializes in family responsibilities discrimination law, says most women’s initiatives have their hearts in the right place but do not go far enough or deep enough. “You can’t slap mentoring on a law firm like a Band-Aid and expect to have measurable change,” she says.

“To keep a women’s initiative going, you need to keep it in the front of people’s minds,” she adds, saying that networking events are the easy thing to do. “It’s necessary, but it’s just a drop in the bucket.”

Calvert concedes that “there definitely are situations where it’s true that women’s initiatives are there to placate women.” What’s needed, she says, is for top rainmakers and managing partners who are committed to advancing women saying to the rest of the firm: “Let’s get her into a position where she can help the firm more.”

Firm leaders need to focus on why advancing women is good for the entire firm, Calvert says, including a candid assessment of where female lawyers are and are not in the firm, which networks include women, which power brokers are championing women, what is working to advance women in the firm, where gender bias is impeding women and why women leave.

At Edwards Wildman Palmer, an emphasis on such metrics is critical, according to Marcia Owens, national co-chair of the firm’s women’s initiative. The firm has networking groups and mentoring programs, but monitoring the actual workflow makes decision-making easier, she says.

“We have had all of our accounting systems changed so we can track any metric regarding women. We run re-ports so we can see how women are doing,” says Owens, who works in the firm’s Chicago office. The firm tracks what women’s hours are, what matters they are working on, whether work is being evenly distributed between women and men, and how much business they bring in. This in turn enables intervention when women are kept idle or when they don’t get credit for business they help to bring in.

There are also dinners with the firm’s managing partner so that women in the firm can learn more about the firm’s direction and “help women to get their names on the radar of top management,” Owens says.

That recognition helps when the firm assigns leadership projects to women in its initiative—for example, examining alternative billing arrangements. This, Owens says, teaches associates how a law firm runs, as well as to understand reports the partnership receives. Overall, she says, the women’s initiative is focused on data being used “in a positive way so that it encourages women and makes them feel not lost in the shuffle.”

analyzing PROGRESS

The Sedgwick Law Firm hosts an advisory council of existing and prospective clients—among them Deloitte, Jet Blue, Boeing Co., Travelers Insurance, Eli Lilly & Co. and Apple—that keeps track of women’s progress at the firm and makes suggestions about how to improve their advancement. “We pick their brains,” says Sedgwick’s chief marketing officer, Kathleen Flynn, who is president of Sedgwick’s Women’s Forum. “Then we report to them every year.”

Not all of the advisory council’s suggestions are embraced, but Flynn says the firm has learned how to measure women’s progress and how to demonstrate the value that women are adding to the firm. Moreover, the council has been an invaluable means for women at the firm “to get insight into what’s going on with our clients, what are their challenges, what are their leadership issues,” Flynn says.

Lillian Stenfeldt, who chairs the bankruptcy practice in Sedgwick’s San Francisco office, says the idea for the advisory council originated with Deloitte. She and Kerry Francis, who now is chairman of the board for Deloitte Financial Advisory Services in the United States, grew up in practice together and were longtime colleagues. It was Francis who suggested that Sedgwick create an advisory group that would provide constructive criticism on women’s development at the firm, Stenfeldt says.

Stenfeldt says the Sedgwick Women’s Forum, launched in 2005, helps attract women to the firm. It’s designed to foster leadership, camaraderie and mentoring with instruction in how to develop business. It also emphasizes community outreach and helps each of the firm’s 29 offices decide which charitable organization to support. Sedgwick also sponsors programs for new mothers who are transitioning back to the workforce and has produced Sedgwick “onesies” to bestow on new lawyer mothers.

On the social side, the Women’s Forum sponsors networking events, including some for women only. Women, says Stenfeldt, can practice networking at women-only events and then deploy their skills elsewhere. Male lawyers’ female contacts are invited to these events, and Stenfeldt says that each of these contacts is welcomed and introduced to other people. “The men are very supportive of what we’re doing, and that makes a huge difference,” she says.

In some ways, Sedgwick reflects the complicated calculus of women’s advancement. It is one of 35 firms that have won the Women in Law Firm Empowerment Award, though only 17 percent of its equity partners in 2011 were women (slightly above the national average of 15 percent reported by the NAWL). Women compose 30 percent of the firm overall, and seven women head practice groups or chair departments. Women constitute 10 percent of firm chairs and managing partners. And they account for 20 percent of the firm’s primary governance committee, two of five members of the compensation committee, and 10 percent of the top half of the firm’s most highly compensated equity partners.


Not all women’s initiatives have produced that kind of success. So what makes some successful and others not? Ida Abbott, a San Francisco law firm consultant and the author of Women on Top: The Woman’s Guide to Leadership and Power in Law Firms, recalls women gathering together 40 years ago, when she was a partner at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe. “A lot of women’s initiatives try networking events to start building social and professional networks, but that’s not enough,” Abbott says. She says women stick with people they already know, and many are simply uncomfortable with networking.

Abbott says women-only networking events are helpful, but only to a point. She asks firms what they hope to achieve with a specific event. “Most of the time they can’t tell you,” she says.

“Having women-only events serves the support aspect of career development, and it does help in building women’s business networks, but … in terms of getting ahead today, women need much more than strategies for career development. It’s about how to get ahead within their particular environments.”

Women’s initiatives, she says, need to focus on the specific firm particulars: “What committees are women working on? Where’s the power and what will it take women to get there?” she says. “That’s the only way you’re going to get significant change.”

At Holland & Knight, Rising Stars—a program that is in the midst of its 10th year—provides intensive leadership training for women and grooms them for leadership positions at the firm. Rising Stars is the brainchild of Janis Schiff, a commercial real estate lawyer in the firm’s D.C. office, and Deborah Barnard, a partner in Boston with expertise in complex civil litigation who previously was head of the firm’s Women’s Initiative.

The program is designed to make sure that talented women—candidates for leadership roles in the firm—don’t fall through the cracks. “Perceptions [of women] started to affect the firm that weren’t as accurate as they should have been, and perception becomes reality,” Schiff says. Too many women think that doing good work will enable them to advance, “but no one knows them.”

Each year, there are twice as many applicants as openings in the program. Selected by senior management, the Rising Stars each receive a life coach, a marketing coach and mentoring. The program is designed for those who’ve been at the firm for at least two years, and each candidate must be at least a seventh-year lawyer. Rising Stars also meet with firm managers and work on firm projects, as well as their own marketing plans. The program teaches associates how a law firm runs, says Tammy Knight, current chair of Holland & Knight’s Women’s Initiative and a partner in corporate, securities and franchise law in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. To date, 37 of the 44 Rising Star participants have become partners—either during the program or afterward. And 27 have become practice group leaders or taken on other management roles.

Knight, who herself took part in the program, says it “gave me a platform I would not otherwise have had, raised my level of visibility, and also raised my level of confidence.”

Nicole Auerbach is a partner at the Valorem Law Group in Chicago. As a partner at Katten Muchin Rosenman she helped to lead the women’s initiative, and she is a founder of the Coalition of Women’s Initiatives in Law. She says there is a new generation of female lawyers who lack awareness of gender bias.

“They were in law school classes that were probably 50/50 or very close to it. They grew up in a generation when women were entering the workforce and opportunities were equally available for women,” Auerbach says. This is less true for senior women, she says, but “the issue of gender bias is a big concern.”

She asks: “Where would women be without these initiatives?” While she acknowledges that the efforts cannot overcome the inertia of decades of gender issues in law firms, she believes they can accomplish a lot of smaller, but often undervalued, advances that make staying and succeeding in a large law firm more possible—nursing rooms for new mothers or advocating for flexible work schedules.

“What women’s initiatives have done is to identify issues,” Auerbach says. “It may take years to see the results.”


The print and initial online version of "Do Women's Initiatives Work?" June, should have identified Catherine Chaskin as a former member of Reed Smith's executive committee and global chair of its Women's Initiative Network. The story also should have included the following, more detailed data about what Chaskin found last year in revisiting the firm's statistics on women: On average, Reed Smith had 40 percent female associates in most major practice groups, which generally held up across offices and years out of law school.

The ABA Journal regrets the errors.

Deborah Graham is a freelance writer in Chicago.

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