“Women’s Issues” in the AmLaw 200—Is It Time for Firms to Look at Those to Solve Other Issues?

June 15, 2015

4541The AmLaw 200 is facing an epidemic on many fronts in 2015—clients taking what’s been a massively lucrative practice (litigation) in-house for the 4th straight year in a row, women attorneys leaving firms in droves, firms’ inability to achieve the diversity numbers they—and their clients—want to see, talent succession planning taking front and center as firms realize there are few “homegrown” partners anymore, attorneys of all genders and ages complaining that they would like a better work-life balance, and more.

The one getting the most attention and headlines is the problem of the lack of women in law firms above associate level, despite women comprising more than 50% of law school graduates.  Clients have started demanding diversity on the outside counsel side to match their own. Clients have long asked about the diversity of firms in RFPs, but some are now tracking the actual attorneys billing on those matters to confirm the diverse attorneys touted in RFPs actually complete the work.  Several firms like Covington & Burling and White & Case have signed on with OnRamp, to utilize one-year paid fellowships to get women back into the practice of law after they’ve been out a few years. Others are publicly creating much more flexible leave policies; Orrick made huge headlines when they recently expanded their parental leave policy up to 9 months (albeit 4 of those unpaid), appointed a firmwide leave liaison, provide “on-ramping” resources upon their return, and most importantly, opened the program to both moms and dads.

However, beyond just retaining women lawyers, large law firms have another goal: to ensure that women become the next leaders of the firm.  In 2006, the National Association of Women Lawyers sought to double the amount of female equity partners in the AmLaw 200 by 2014. At that time, only 15% of equity partners were female.  However, in 2014, the goal failed, reaching only 16.8% . Corporate America boasts slightly better stats—22.6% of Fortune 500 general counsel are women, and indeed, throughout the legal field, women are more often in top positions as law school deans or associate/deputy deans, judges or Fortune 500 GCs (all in excess of the 16.8% of women who are equity partners in law firms.)

The consequences of the AmLaw 200 not finding a way to keep women around in the profession are multi-fold: one, corporate America’s higher level of female GCs are starting to demand diversity reflected back to them—and tracking to ensure a firm delivers the diversity promised at RFP time; two, law firms are finding a dearth of leadership available to take over their firms; and three, will not providing a better work-life balance for women drive away men and millennials, two groups also complaining about work-life balance?

Indeed, firms are also starting to realize they don’t know what millennial employees value or want or how to best work with them.  An HR director at a prominent firm told me the firm recently held a seminar for partner and Baby Boomer (or beyond) attorneys on how to “talk to” and “work with” millennial employees, but the partners kept focusing on how the young attorneys kept wanting what they called special exceptions for teleworking, ability to work different hours from typical business hours, or upward mobility without having put in the time.  They essentially dismissed a lot of the younger employees as merely acting “whiny” or entitled. But really, are the millennials asking for anything different than what women partners who are parents have asked for—and who seem to be leaving the practice of law long before partnership is a possibility?

Women attorneys have complained that law firms don’t give much thought to small changes that could improve working parents’ lives—like implementing software that electronically tracks changes in documents, rather than requiring associates to wait around on partners to manually handwrite revisions and changes on the documents. I’ve written about this before, as has Biglaw Mommy on her blog on AbovetheLaw.com.  Beyond this, women have also complained that while some firms give lip service to women’s committees and networking opportunities, the networking and women’s committees are mostly composed of other women and not often the power players or firm leaders.

Indeed, beyond female parent attorneys seeking a better work-life balance, so are male parent attorneys.  Many have talked about the firm culture really discouraging men from taking paternity leave or leaving at a reasonable time (say, 5:30 p.m.) to attend their children’s activities.  Beyond working parent attorneys, some attorneys may need an altered schedule to provide assistance to an ailing parent or sibling; I’m grateful my husband’s federal agency was very liberal in allowing him to use medical telework to complete his work by my father-in-law’s bedside in his final few months.  A recent New York Times article argued that what is really keeping women from making it to higher levels of business are the excessively long hours American employees work, especially in white collar professions.  The article noted that men suffer from these long hours as well and noted that at one consulting firm, men were quitting at the rate of women due to the 24/7 “on call” nature of American business today.

If firms can’t provide attorneys the flexibility they need, will they live for less time-intensive or face-time intensive careers? As firms look around behind their baby boomer partners looking for their next firm leaders, who will be waiting?  The buzzwords at every firm seem to be “talent succession planning” and indeed, general counsels are asking to see talent succession plans and even asking for a voice in that planning.  Firm leaders suddenly seem keenly aware that their partnership and firm leaders are heavily white, male and increasingly moving beyond the age of retirement with no plan for succession of their work to the next firm leaders.  Indeed the Texas Bar Association recently repealed the exemption from CLE requirements for attorneys who are 70 years old and up. The recent Altman Weil survey showed firms have too many non-equity partners, without enough work to do, while the firm’s older/senior partners are not retiring and many firms do not have talent succession plans. Due to this, the younger non-equity partners have not been prepared for the transition of clients to them.  Some law firms have started moving experienced partners into other leadership positions at the firm, like Chief Information Officers, Chief Talent Officers, Chief Innovation Officer.

Clearly firms are looking for their next firm leaders. If they want them to be women, or male parents, or children of aging parents, or just millennials looking for a better work-life balance, perhaps now is the time to stop calling flexibility in workplace, hours, face-time, technology and more “women’s issues” and instead start looking at what effectuating some of these changes could solve.