What makes a great firm for women lawyers?
That’s the question Working Mother asks each year in its 60 Best Law Firms for Women recognition. Over the years, the media company has introduced a growing number of “best company” lists: 100 Best Companies, Top Companies for Women, Best Companies for Multicultural Women, Best Companies for Dads, etc. These days, a single application serves to cover them all—all, that is, except for “Best Law Firms,” which has an application all its own.
Of course, law firms can always apply for the more general lists, and several do get on them each year. But law firms face some unique challenges, thanks to their organization as partnerships, billable hour pay structures, intense client relationships and so on. So what do the best ones offer?
- The way up in a law firm is most often via partnership, and the climb can be grueling. To complicate matters, young associates are often expected to go all-in on this effort just when they are of an age to have young families. The best law firms have leaders that recognize the potential conflicts this can lead to. They have policies in place to alleviate the worst problems and work hard to create cultures that respect a diversity of situation and lifestyle as well as of background and identity—going out of their way to provide mentoring, sponsorship and other development opportunities, including programs specifically targeted at women.
- Overwork is a problem at companies of all sorts, of course, but within the client-facing, billable hour structure of a law firm the expectations can be particularly insane. Real opportunities to work a reduced hour schedule—without permanently relinquishing opportunities for advancement, are essential. Some of the best law firms allow lawyers to reduce their hours by reducing their client load. These lawyers are treated just like everyone else—including being promoted; partners work reduced hours, too.
- Similarly, the best law firms provide flexibility. While options like flextime can be relatively meaningless in the long-hours environment of a firm, the ability to work remotely can be a huge boon.
- Some clients carry more clout than others. Recognizing this fact, some firms have taken steps to track assignments, working to ensure women get equal opportunity when it comes to visibility with high revenue clients. Likewise, some firms affirmatively work to ensure women take on leadership roles on litigation teams.
- Many of the best law firms have signed on to the Mansfield Rule, a certification achieved by committing to consider a slate including at least 30 percent women, attorneys of color, LGBTQ+ and lawyers with disabilities when hiring, assigning leadership and governance roles and formal client pitch opportunities, as well as making equity partner promotions and senior lateral moves.
- As in any organization, strong, ideally gender-neutral, parental leave policies and other supports for growing families, such as reimbursement for adoption and surrogacy, coverage for fertility treatments and even egg-freezing, proper lactation facilities and counseling, can make a huge difference. Some firms are promoting gradual phase-back from parental leave. Again as with any organization, the best firms don’t treat people who use these benefits as second-class citizens. One firm even promoted a lawyer to partner while she was out on childbirth leave.
- The best law firms make sure much of the above happens by holding leaders accountable for ensuring their teams are diverse. And they demonstrate that it works by having significant (and growing) numbers of women on their boards and among their equity (or senior) partners.
Think your firm might have what it takes? The “Best Law Firms” application is released early each December and is generally due in early February. At this writing, there are only a few weeks left to apply for the 2020 list. There’s no penalty for not getting on (the “also-rans” are never listed publicly)—so why not give it a spin?
The Working Mother “Best Company” list applications are out now! Let me help you tell your story!
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