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.”

Bridging the Law Firm Gender Gap
Illustration by Mark Smith

Enter the Diversity Lab, whose self-described mission is to “inspire creative thinking and ideas that boost diversity and inclusion in organizations.” Last summer, its founder and CEO reached out to Robinson to co-sponsor the inaugural Women in Law Hackathon, a Shark Tank-style pitch competition aimed at addressing the retention and advancement of women in national law firms.

“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.”

Within just a few weeks, Robinson and the Diversity Lab had recruited partners from 54 national firms. Each joined one of nine teams—each including six lawyers and one SLS student—that would pitch solutions at the Women in Law Hackathon in June 2016. In addition, each team was assigned two advisors to provide education on diversity issues and to keep the process on track.

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.”

Those efforts focused on two goals: identifying the scope of the problem, including the causes, and proposing possible solutions. Accordingly, speakers and readings, particularly in the first half of the practicum, addressed the structural, cultural, and economic components of law firms, all of which have a bearing on women’s success.

“Even though there were only four students—two 2Ls and two LLMs—we brought a lot of different perspectives to the process, which I really appreciated,” says Anna Jaffe, LLM ’16. “I also enjoyed the breadth of guest speakers and workshops forming part of the practicum, such as the design-thinking workshop where we did a lot of brainstorming. It gave us a very positive feeling about what could be accomplished.”

The result of the practicum is a white paper, co-authored by the four SLS students, which provides an in-depth survey and analysis of the literature addressing the problem as well as possible solutions. Jaffe says it reveals “the complexity and multi-faceted nature of the problem, which make it especially tough to grapple with and which highlight the need for multi-pronged solutions.”

The paper has been distributed to the hackathon teams to aid in shaping their final pitches. “More broadly,” Robinson says, “I think it will be helpful to the industry as a whole to have so many ideas for tackling the problem laid out in one place.”

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.”

For more information about the Women in Law Hackathon, visit http://stanford.io/womeninlaw.