Equity Matters

How my firm defies the statistics on women in legal leadership—and how yours can too.

Importance of Women in Legal Leadership

Emer Simic

June 10, 2020 08:00 AM

Managing intellectual property's 2019 survey on diversity in IP, as well as the American Bar Association’s recent report, Walking Out the Door: The Facts, Figures, and Future of Experienced Women Lawyers in Private Practice, confronted the legal industry with some deeply disappointing statistics. Despite the ever-increasing resources law firms are investing in gender-diversity initiatives, the IP survey revealed that experienced female lawyers continue to leave the profession at a much higher rate than men. According to the 2018 Vault/MCCA Law Firm Diversity Survey cited in the ABA report, less than 25 percent of law-firm management-committee members, practice group leaders, and office heads are women. This disheartening gender imbalance is not only discouraging to attorneys entering the profession, but it also robs firms and clients of access to a pool of talented lawyers. In an era when clients demand diverse legal teams, it puts revenue at risk.

"Law firms need not cling to outdated work structures."

The leadership at my firm, however, defies these statistics. I’m an equity partner in a leading majority-woman-owned IP boutique firm. Although it wasn’t specifically addressed in the ABA survey, the gender imbalance in IP law leadership is even more severe—only 19 percent of partners at IP boutiques nationwide are women. And while we take pride in our status as a rare example of gender equality, this is one distinction we would much rather share with a growing number of firms.

How have we prevented attrition among our most experienced female lawyers?

The playbook we use is not complex, but it requires a commitment to address cultural and structural problems that limit women’s access to opportunity at law firms. Here are some of the ways we have intentionally fostered equal opportunities for all our lawyers:

We committed to the core value of hiring the best attorneys.

It benefits everyone—associates, partners, and clients—when firms ensure that they’re choosing the smartest, most gifted attorneys for leadership roles. Unless you subscribe to outdated notions of what men and women are capable of, 50 percent of promotions, first-chair opportunities, and managing-partner roles should be going to women.

We embrace work-life flexibility.

The central feature of the ABA’s report is a survey of managing partners and attorneys who have practiced law for at least 15 years. One prominent question asked why experienced women leave their firms. The highest-ranking reason, cited by 58 percent of respondents, was “caretaking commitments,” followed by “number of billable hours” at 50 percent. Traditional law firm culture, with its rigid schedule and single-minded focus on billable-hour quotas, forces women to make impossible choices between work and family obligations. That means every year, firms lose their investment in talented and experienced attorneys.

Law firms need not cling to outdated work structures, though. Ours encourages lawyers to determine their own schedule, and we’ve rejected a rigid billable-hour requirement. This approach has enabled our attorneys to focus on delivering quality work and outstanding service to clients without having to sacrifice their own needs or those of their families.

We adopted an inclusive sponsorship and mentoring model.

Another enlightening Managing IP survey question asked men and women whether, on account of their gender, they have “experienced a lack of access to sponsors.” Just 3 percent of men felt this was true, but 46 percent of women said it reflected their experience. As we know from countless studies and articles, sponsorship and mentoring are crucial elements of career advancement, and all too often the majority-male leadership sponsors and mentors the attorneys who remind them of themselves. At the same time, the few women in leadership are overburdened with the responsibility of supporting more junior women, guaranteeing those attorneys will have far fewer opportunities for dedicated sponsors than their male peers.

All partners in our firm are expected to mentor and sponsor associates (regardless of gender) for leadership, including fostering client relationships and offering first-chair opportunities at oral arguments, trials, and appeals. The success of this approach is reflected in our majority-female partnership.

We prioritize attorney performance over traditional compensation metrics.

The ABA survey asked specifically about satisfaction with “the methods by which compensation is determined (including salary, benefits, and bonus).” While 17 percent of men said they were dissatisfied with these methods, more than twice as many women—38 percent—said they were dissatisfied.

At our firm, we have abandoned traditional methods such as strict billable-hour quotas to evaluate an attorney’s performance, and instead use more holistic metrics: the quality of attorney work, client satisfaction, and case outcomes. We have also found that a client-centric model encourages collaboration over competition, which leads to creative problem solving and better outcomes.

We recognize and celebrate achievements.

When it comes to satisfaction over “recognition received for their work,” 71 percent of men the ABA surveyed said they are “satisfied.” Among women, 32 percent said they are “dissatisfied” and 14 percent “extremely dissatisfied” with the recognition they receive. Recognition can encompass several things: financial compensation, public credit, industry accolades.

Of all the factors that influence women’s experiences at law firms, recognition should be the easiest to remedy. How does our firm define and celebrate wins? We give credit where credit is due, toast every significant achievement, and compensate our attorneys commensurate with their work. We also prioritize award nominations for lawyers at every level and encourage partners with voting privileges in organizations to support women from our firm with their votes. When one of our lawyers wins, we all celebrate, because these victories bring everyone up and continue to build our firm’s profile as a leader in the IP field.

"Of all the factors that influence women's experiences at law firms, recognition should be the easiest to remedy."

Our approach works. From the outset, our founding partners committed to these progressive and inclusive principles, which have produced our diverse, talented leadership; however, gender parity for its own sake has never been the primary motivation. Rather, our leadership adopted this approach because it results in a positive, collegial culture, highly satisfied clients, and a track record of courtroom success, including back-to-back trial wins against much larger firms. We look forward to other firms joining our approach, and we will continue to work toward eliminating gender disparity in IP law and in our profession at large.

Emer Simic is a partner with Green, Griffith & Borg-Breen LLP, a majority women-owned intellectual property law firm. Emer is an experienced litigator and focuses her practice on patent litigation, due diligence, and client counseling in the pharmaceutical, biotech, and chemical industries. Emer also works to advance women in law through her service on the Board of the Coalition of the Women's Initiatives in Law

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