It’s Gender-Talk Time Again For Law Firms

It's Gender-Talk Time Again For Law Firms

It’s gender talk time again for law firms – not that the issue every truly disappeared from the partners’ table.

However it’s interest, as Fortune Magazine have reported, that Big Law’s Orrick Herrington – the same people who handled the high profile Ellen Pao gender discrimination lawsuit for Kleiner Perkins, explained why they overhauled their parental leave policy.

Quick Fact check: Women account for 47 percent of US law school graduates (even higher in some other jurisdictions), but they make up only 17 percent of partner numbers.

Fortune report that the Fortune 500 companies’ legal departments do somewhat better in the gender stakes by advancing women to higher positions – the percentage there is 21 per cent. So it’s better, but not by much.

So, as Fortune note, its not a pipeline problem. The simple fact is that women are not making it to the top table.

As Fortune note: Gender diversity in business is directly linked to increased creativity, collective intelligence and financial performance. A 2014 study by Credit Suisse Research Institute that compared companies where women hold less than 5% of the top operational jobs to those where women hold more than 10%, found that greater gender diversity correlated with a 27% higher return on equity and a 42% higher ratio of dividend payouts.

Many major corporations are taking often quite dramatic steps to advance women.

Apple for instance, has expanded its paid leave policy in late 2014 as part of a benefits overhaul designed to advance diversity.

Morgan Stanley, which already offers a comprehensive paid leave policy, has added maternity coaches to improve communication between working parents and their managers.

Complex Problem

Fortune say that the issue for law firms is different and more complex:

The leading reason women give for stepping off partnership track is “the difficulty of combining law firm work and caring for children in a system that requires long hours under high pressure with little or inconsistent support for flexible work arrangements.” That was the finding of a 2007 report by the M.I.T. Workplace Center.

The concern over work-life balance is particularly acute for professionals under the age of 30.

“Firms should know that millennials have no interest in making work/family trade-offs. They look at the sacrifices the generations above them, even their own parents, have made, and reject this path fully,” professor Kellie McElhaney, founding director of the Center for Responsible Business at Berkeley-Haas School of Business, told me in a recent conversation.

“Before making job choices, millennial couples specifically discuss and consider together, their ability to share equally child-rearing responsibility. To be clear, this is not an indication that young female professionals are less ambitious to make it to the top ranks. This is an indication that they expect their male partners and their employers to help support this success.”

Creating more opportunities for women will require changes in policy, culture and leadership. At Orrick, one way we’re seeking to attract women, and inspire them to stay and lead, is by expanding our parental leave policy. As of May 1, our lawyers who are primary caregivers became eligible for 22 weeks of paid leave and nine months of job protection. This adds four weeks paid and two months unpaid leave to our prior policy. Based on our research, it will be the leading policy in the large law firm market.

Paid leave has obvious benefits for working mothers and their families, which is why it’s mandated in every developed country except the United States. Our policy was inspired in part by conversations with our European partners.

Of course, parental leave is only part of the solution. Parenting is a long journey and we need to make changes both institutional and individual to enable parents to thrive professionally and care for their families. That’s why we have created the role of “Leave Liaison” to help parents transition back to practice, and why we’re enhancing our on-ramping and flexible work arrangement programs.

Read more at Fortune
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