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Women in Law – They Don’t Need to Commit “Career Suicide”

women lawyers and alicia powell's story about women in lawWomen lawyers in the US account for only about 15 per cent of the total, according to the National Association of Women Lawyers – and for some firms it is well beneath that figure.

Yet other firms are making strong progress in advancing women lawyers, such as Reed Smith, which employs 400 women lawyers worldwide and has 22 per cent women partners and has achieved gold standard certification among one women’s law group for its role in bringing women lawyers to the fore.  One such woman is Alicia Powell, profiled in the Pittsburg Post-Gazette.

After giving birth to her first child and taking a maternity leave, Alicia Powell returned to work at law firm Reed Smith as a fourth-year associate and immersed herself in getting her job done.

“I thought the very best thing I could do to be the best mother and the best lawyer was to work at my desk eight to nine hours a day, eat lunch at my desk, not engage in any chat at the water cooler, then run out the door to go home to my baby.”

But about four months into that strict routine, Ms. Powell found out she was essentially on track to commit, as she put it, “career suicide.”

“I needed to make time to serve on firm committees and go out to lunch with the partners I was working with. You have to talk to people [to] get good assignments.”

Now a partner in the Downtown-based firm’s investment management group, and chairwoman of the Women’s Initiative Network of Reed Smith in Pittsburgh, Ms. Powell didn’t come to that realization on her own. A trip to Philadelphia, where all of Reed Smith’s four-year, female associates convened for a coaching seminar on business development, was the lightning bolt she needed to start evaluating how to advance at the firm.

The coaching session was sponsored by WINRS and featured a speaker from Catalyst, a New York-based nonprofit that promotes women in business and tracks data on women on boards and in executive positions.

“That was absolutely career-changing for me,” said Ms. Powell, who became a partner in 2008 and is now a mother of two. “I thought I was absolutely doing the right thing [before that] and probably wouldn’t be a partner today.”

Reed Smith has consistently earned high marks for its formal efforts to promote and retain women and develop their careers. Recently, it was among 42 large U.S. firms that achieved gold-standard certification from the Women in Law Empowerment Forum. Pittsburgh’s largest firm, Downtown-based K&L Gates, was also gold-certified, along with several firms with offices in the region, including Norton Rose Fulbright; Jackson Lewis; and Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe.

To be certified, firms with 200 or more lawyers practicing in the U.S. must attain benchmarks in four of six categories; Reed Smith was one of only six firms this year to achieve all six.

Specifically, the criteria stipulate that women comprise at least 20 percent of equity partners; account for at least 10 percent of firm chairs and office managing partners; make up at least 20 percent of the firm’s primary governance committee; represent 20 percent or more of the firm’s compensation committee; comprise at least 25 percent of practice group leaders or department heads; and represent at least 10 percent of the top half of the highest-paid partners.

In the U.S., Reed Smith has 400-plus female lawyers who accounted for approximately 22 percent of all partners and 20 percent of the firm’s 227 equity partners as of the end of 2012.

The national average of female equity partners at large firms is about 15 percent, according to the National Association of Women Lawyers Foundation.

Of K&L’s 970 partners in 48 worldwide offices, about 20 percent are women, said Janice Hartman, global development partner based in Pittsburgh, who holds the highest job among all women in the firm and who also chairs the firm’s Women in the Profession committee.

Among other statistics that helped the firm attain gold status from the Women Empowerment Forum: women are managing partners at four K&L offices (Pittsburgh, San Diego, Anchorage and Research Triangle Park in North Carolina); 24 practice group leaders are women; and women are directors of administration in half of K&L’s global offices. Of 540 equity partners at the firm, about 15 percent are women, spokesman Michael Rick said.

“This certification is oriented toward getting those metrics out there,” Ms. Hartman said. “We’re not just talking the talk.”

Despite impressive progress among some large firms, statistics show women continue to lag men in top jobs and in pay at most law practices, and at many of them, women’s initiatives aren’t really effective, the Chicago-based NAWL Foundation concluded in a study released in November 2012.

“While nearly one in two associates is a woman, only one in seven equity partners is a woman,” the study said.

Other study findings showed that 46 percent of large firms said there were no female rainmakers among their top 10 business generators; only 4 percent of firms have women as firm-wide managing partners; and in 2012, women equity partners earned only 89 percent of male equity partners’ compensation.

While many firms have launched women’s initiatives in the past decade, the study found many are unfocused, many are underfunded, and many are primarily vehicles for networking that don’t directly impact how women advance at the firm.

While huge, global firms like K&L, Reed Smith and the others surveyed by the NAWL Foundation and Women’s Empowerment Forum have deep resources to spend on programs to advance female lawyers, lots of small and mid-size firms may have scant formal programming. However, there are steps smaller firms can take to help women advance, said Alysia Keating, director of diversity and gender equality for the Allegheny County Bar Association.

“There should be leadership training across the board. That’s something you don’t learn in law school and we need it for women to step into the roles we want women to step into. You can’t turn a blind eye when we’re graduating about 50 percent women [from law schools] and only 15 percent are equity partners,” she said.

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