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Women represent only 18 percent of partners in the nation’s largest law firms, 16 percent of equity partners and fewer than 10 percent of managing partners. Little has changed. Retention and advancement of women remain problematic for many firms. So what will it take to solve the problem?

Women represent only 18 percent of partners in the nation's largest law firms, 16 percent of equity partners and fewer than 10 percent of managing partners. Little has changed. Retention and advancement of women remain problematic for many firms. So what will it take to solve the problem?  4

We all know there’s a problem. Women represent only 18 percent of partners in the nation’s largest law firms, 16 percent of equity partners and fewer than 10 percent of managing partners. At every level of firm practice, including partnership, women are leaving at a much higher rate than their male counterparts.

Firms have enacted various measures to address the problem. Diversity committees were created well over a decade ago. Women’s initiatives have been expanded, part-time and flex-time programs strengthened and more personnel and resources are now dedicated to diversity.

Yet little has changed. Retention and advancement of women remain problematic for many firms. So what will it take to solve the problem? First, firms need to solve the right problem.

“Work-life issues” are not the primary reason women leave firm practice. As numerous studies have shown, women leave firms because they are dissatisfied with stalled advancement and career opportunities, unsatisfying work and “unsupportive” work environments. Work-life concerns are certainly a factor in women’s decisions to leave, but they are not determinative.

Can novel approaches to associate development and advancement help stop this drain of female talent?

The competency-based “level” system used to evaluate associates at Husch Blackwell Sanders, a firm with 675 attorneys throughout the Midwest and other locations, seems to suggest so.

The firm’s level system was created in 2000 at Blackwell Sanders (which merged with Husch & Eppenberger last year). The system provides three levels for associate development, and each level articulates 17 skills and performance competencies. Associates are evaluated twice annually.

A level system makes the associate review and advancement process more transparent than a typical lockstep system. Partners in a level system must make an “affirmative decision about each associate’s development” when deciding whether to promote an associate to the next competency level, explained Peter Sloan, a partner at the firm and the author of “From Classes to Competencies, Lockstep to Levels” (.pdf), in an interview.

In contrast, at many lockstep-based firms, associates advance (and are paid more) merely because they are getting older, not necessarily because their competencies have improved. Also, the partnership seldom has to make any substantive decisions about an associate’s advancement until he or she is up for partner. As a result, “many associates don’t know where they stand” until partnership, Sloan added.

In Husch Blackwell’s level system, an associate only receives higher pay when his or her competency level improves. In addition, associates’ billable rates only increase when they are promoted to the next level. Thus, both the associate and the firm have an incentive to develop an associate’s skills.

Because of this shared incentive, associate development programs, including training, mentoring and coaching, are viewed as an “investment in developing our associate talent, not an expense,” said Sloan. “Increased associate competency is directly tied to increased firm revenue.”

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