NEW YORK — On Monday, an event to launch a new report on women in law firms from McKinsey & Company, and championed by Thomson Reuters through its recruitment of firms to participate in the research, provided some eye-opening data about women and the legal profession.
Leaders from Thomson Reuters and three major law firms discussed strategies for improving the current statistics around diversity in law firms, following a presentation by McKinsey that highlighted the findings. The event was hosted at the New York headquarters of Thomson Reuters.
Susan Taylor Martin, president of Thomson Reuters Legal, emphasized that those in attendance likely understood that diverse workforces drive better bottom line results, and, not surprisingly, help attract and retain the best talent. “The research is so clear and so consistent time and time again, and we have such a long way to go,” Taylor Martin said. Law firm associates, she said, are about 45% female. But women make up only 19% of equity partners within the AmLaw 200. That number, she said, has been flat for a couple of years, and rose just 1% since 2015.
The law firm study was conducted as part of McKinsey’s and LeanIn.Org’s broader Women in the Workplace research, which surveyed 222 companies and more than 70,000 employees — including 23 law firms and over 2,500 attorneys.
The study found that, overall, only a quarter of women comprise executive leadership positions (management committee and practice leadership). Yet 60% of men believe that women are well-represented in the leadership of law firms. Danielle Bozarth, the Senior Partner at McKinsey who presented the results, said she found it “remarkable” that 33% of women actually agreed with that statement. “Men are more likely than women to believe they know what to do to promote gender equity in their firm, which I think is amazing in itself,” she said.
Not every law firm associate who responded to the survey wants to become a partner. The number one reason that women are ambivalent about career advancement is the difficulty in balancing work and family life. Just 44% of female associates thought they could have a successful career and personal life, compared to 60% of men. That’s hardly surprising given that half of women said they did all or most of the housework, compared to just 16% of men. Some 81% of women had a spouse that works full time, compared to just 45% of men.
What Women Live; What Men Believe
During a panel discussion moderated by Reuters Money editor Lauren Young, both panelists and members of the audience expressed frustration at the number of men in the survey who believe that gender issues at law firms have essentially been fixed.
“There’s a time drag on it,” said Ora Fisher, Vice Chair at Latham & Watkins. “Women have been confronting this issue for decades. Men have a different outlook on it because of the different way it’s impacted their lives,” she said, adding that there is a lot of talk about the issue, which may have led men to think it’s yesterday’s problem.
Brad Karp, Chair of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, said that the older white men who make up most of law firm leadership have a tendency to look back, and to say that the situation today is much better than it used to be. “That is not the question,” said Karp. “What it should look like today is the critical question.”
Kim Koopersmith, Chairperson of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, agreed. “We have to educate the men who think this looks great,” she said. “That’s not an appropriate conclusion, based on where we are.”
Developing Client Relationships
Another hot topic was client relationships, and how women can gain access to them. Bozarth, in her comments, said that making sure more of these opportunities are available to women is “a critical differentiator” between organizations that do well over time and those that do less well.
The panelists were even more emphatic. “I’m excited to see the focus on assignments,” said Deirdre Stanley, General Counsel of Thomson Reuters. “Your reputation is sometimes made in your first or second year as an associate. If you haven’t worked on certain matters by your third year, often you haven’t written your ticket.”
Compensation structures also make a difference in ensuring that women get access to significant clients. Paul, Weiss is a “lockstep firm”, except at the very top, said Karp. So partners don’t have any financial incentive to hang onto big clients, rather than passing them along to talented associates and junior partners.
Koopersmith recounted her experience with Walmart, which led to a wider discussion of the role of the in-house bar. When Akin Gump began working with Walmart in 2006, Walmart made it clear they would decide who the relationship partner was — not the law firm. Koopersmith became the relationship partner, but, she said, “Without that pressure I’m not sure I would have been the choice.” A few years later, she became part of the succession discussions taking place within her firm.
“One of the things that gave me credibility was that I had managed a significant client relationship and had done it successfully,” Koopersmith said.
When he was an associate, a number of women general counsels helped him greatly in his career, Karp recalled. So when he became a junior partner, he would say to them, “Tell me to get a diverse team.” If the general counsel of the Fortune 500 companies — 35% of whom are women — would direct law firms to get diverse teams, “law firms would respond in a nanosecond,” Karp said.
“We are service providers — we want the work,” he added. “The general counsels can make a world of difference.”