Bridging The Law Firm Gender Gap

Details

Publish Date:
May 31, 2016
Author(s):
  • Randee Fenner
Source:
Stanford Lawyer
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Summary

The problem appears intractable. According to the American Bar Association, although women have made up close to 50 percent of law school graduates since the 1990s, they make up only 18 percent of law firm equity partners. And that number has remained fairly stagnant—only 2 percent higher than in 2006. Moreover, the ABA data show that although women work more hours than men, they are billed out at lower rates, earn less income, and are much less likely to advance to partnership.

In a classic example of how Stanford Law School’s Law and Policy Lab can help solve such real-world problems, the Stanford Law policy practicum Retaining & Advancing Women in National Law Firms is poised to have a palpable impact on these issues. And the timing couldn’t be better. Despite law firms’ efforts to address these matters, the numbers haven’t improved. As Associate Dean for Career Services and Lecturer Susan Robinson observes, “What firms are doing now is a start, but it isn’t enough. As an industry, we need to rethink how we’re addressing this issue and be willing to try new and innovative approaches.”

The problem appears intractable. According to the American Bar Association, although women have made up close to 50 percent of law school graduates since the 1990s, they make up only 18 percent of law firm equity partners. And that number has remained fairly stagnant—only 2 percent higher than in 2006. Moreover, the ABA data show that although women work more hours than men, they are billed out at lower rates, earn less income, and are much less likely to advance to partnership.

In a classic example of how Stanford Law School’s Law and Policy Lab can help solve such real-world problems, the Stanford Law policy practicum Retaining & Advancing Women in National Law Firms is poised to have a palpable impact on these issues. And the timing couldn’t be better. Despite law firms’ efforts to address these matters, the numbers haven’t improved. As Associate Dean for Career Services and Lecturer Susan Robinson observes, “What firms are doing now is a start, but it isn’t enough. As an industry, we need to rethink how we’re addressing this issue and be willing to try new and innovative approaches.”

“The idea,” says Robinson, “was to engage partners who are leaders in their firms, but not necessarily involved in diversity per se, in order to bring a fresh perspective to the issue.”

While the teams were getting organized during the fall, Mark Kelman, James C. Gaither Professor of Law and vice dean, suggested that the SLS student members could make a unique contribution through the school’s Policy Lab. Robinson and Lucy Ricca, executive director of the SLS Center on the Legal Profession, concurred, designing and implementing a complementary policy practicum to generate policy-focused research that would enhance the hackathon teams’ efforts.

The practicum was up and running by winter quarter. “We selected readings, engaged guest speakers, recruited four student hackathon team members to participate, and signed up [Professor of Law] Robert Gordon as the faculty advisor,” says Ricca, who was primarily responsible for the practicum’s organization.

Gordon reviewed students’ writing, asked probing questions, and offered occasional suggestions, but left it primarily to the students to drive the project. “The students took charge from the beginning,” he says. “They divided the work and allocated responsibility with amazing speed and efficiency, and they attacked the project with a real ferocity. I was incredibly impressed with the intensity of their interest and efforts.”

On June 24, the teams will gather at the law school and pitch their ideas to a panel of judges, including Miriam Rivera, JD/MBA ’95 (BA ’86, MA ’89), managing partner at Ulu Ventures, Tony West, JD ’92, general counsel of PepsiCo, and Deborah Rhode, Ernest W. McFarland Professor of Law and director of the Center on the Legal Profession, at an invitation-only event. Bloomberg Law is donating the prize money—$10,000 for first place, $7,500 for second place, and $5,000 for third place—and the top three teams will donate their prizes to a nonprofit organization of their choice that is advancing women in the legal profession and beyond. The winning ideas will be published on both the Diversity Lab and SLS websites and distributed to major news outlets and top management at U.S. law firms.

“We’re hopeful that some or all of these ideas will be adopted by firms,” says Jaffe, “but we’re also realistic. There is no short-term fix.”

Robinson agrees: “This is a significant moment in time. The legal market is changing, economic pressures are increasing, and many young attorneys and clients are unhappy with the status quo. I think it’s great that these firms were willing to try something different and a bit radical.”

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