Law firms continually struggle for meaningful ways to advance commonly shared diversity objectives. Such an opportunity rarely is open and available simply for the asking. This is the invitation extended by the Chicago Bar Association to all Chicago law firms to promote women in leadership by committing to the Alliance for Women Call to Action.
The Call to Action was launched on January 25, 2005 to increase the number of women partners and to enhance leadership opportunities for women attorneys in law firms. Ten law firms emerged as leaders to promote this Call to Action even before it was formally announced: Baker & McKenzie, DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary, Jenner & Block LLP, Katten Muchin Zavis & Rosenman, Kirkland & Ellis, McGuire Woods, McDermott, Will & Emery, Schiff Hardin, Sidley Austin Brown & Wood and Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal.
This Call to Action, the first in Chicago but similar to Calls to Action put out by other U.S. bar associations, addresses the problem of a disproportionately low percent of women attorneys in leadership ranks in Chicago’s law firms. Even though females have been recruited into these law firms in roughly proportionate numbers to their graduation from the top law school for many years—statistics kept by the National Association for Law Placement (“NALP”) indicate that the percent of female associates has exceeded 40 percent since 1998—yet women attorneys are not seen in leadership positions as evidenced by the lack of female equity partners, practice group leaders, committee chairs and managing partners. The Alliance for Women believes that the leaders of Chicago’s law firms must address and work to solve this issue.
In 2004, NALP statistics revealed that the average percent of women partners in the top 20 Chicago law firms was 18.12. These statistics from the Chicago Lawyer’s Diversity Survey of Chicago law firms (July 2004) reveal only ten law firms are at or above the 18.12 average percent. In general, this group of law firms range from a high of 26.7 percent of women partners to a low of 15.4 percent. In addition, since most of the firms have two tiered partnerships, the numbers of equity partners are even lower. It is important to note that these statistics are self reported to the Chicago Lawyer and reflect the percentages of female partners as a percent of total partners.
In November, 2004, the Chicago Bar Association approved the Call to Action developed by the Alliance for Women. The specific goals of the Call to Action are:
1. to increase the percent of its women partners by 3 percentage points from its 2004 levels by December 31, 2007;
2. to have women represented on every firm committee in the same proportion as the number of women partners by December 31, 2007;
3. to increase the number of women practice group leaders by December 31, 2007;
4. to review its flexible hours policy and its use in order to ensure that alternative schedules are an equitable and viable option by December 31, 2007; and
5. to improve materially any disparity in the rates in which men and women are retained, promoted and laterally recruited at the firm by December 31, 2007.
This Call to Action was specifically designed to allow every law firm to succeed at addressing the problem of the lack of women in leadership positions. The Call to Action goals serve to raise awareness of these concerns and to outline an action plan over a three year period. In addition, the Alliance for Women developed a companion guidance Best Practices for Ensuring Compliance With Commitment to assist law firms in meeting these goals.
The Call to Action was sent to the Managing Partners of Chicago firms and to General Counsels of Chicago businesses. While the Call to Action is targeted at law firms, any Chicago area legal organization is welcome to participate. Becoming a signatory is a simple process: provide the name and contact information for the firm and the contact person at the firm who will be responsible for meeting the goals of the Call to Action. A yearly report will be issued to monitor the progress of all firms in meeting the stated goals. Signatory firms will receive special recognition for their commitment to the Call to Action. A final report will be issued in 2008.
On January 24, 2007 the Alliance for Women sponsored its 2007 Call to Action kick off event hosted by Shefsky & Froelich. The program focused on continuing outreach to firms and legal organizations not yet participating in the Call to Action. The program also provided an update on the status of the Call to Action for signatories and allowed for the sharing of important information including success stories, lessons learned and best practices.
The event and panel discussion were organized by Call to Action subcommittee member, Jennifer Bluestein, Director of Professional Development, Baker & McKenzie. The Call to Action panelists included Susan Wiles, Partner, Shefsky & Froelich, Victoria Donati, Partner, Neal Gerber & Eisenberg LLP and E. Lynn Grayson, Partner, Jenner & Block LLP.
Call to Action Co-Chair Jane DiRenzo Pigott opened the program by providing an update on the participation reports to be provided to signatories and the timing of the next request for data. Each signatory previously submitting data will receive a Call to Action interim report by the end of January along with a request for the next round of data. Jane thanked Baker & McKenzie for lending its technology department to format the reports as well as Deloitte Financial Advisory Services for its continuing support in managing the Call to Action data and related statistics.
The panelists each shared their experiences regarding what works and what doesn’t work in achieving the Call to Action objectives. Key issues addressed during the panel discussion included: 1) the necessity of top management support for diversity initiatives overall, 2) encouraging women attorneys to be more proactive in seeking change within their law firms; 3) evaluating an increase in the size of firm committees to allow for greater participation, particularly by women partners; 4) the importance of women partners as role models in law firm management; 5) the commitment required of women partners to assume leadership opportunities; and, 6) the critical need for an effective, meaningful flex time program that provides all attorneys, including associates as well as equity and non-equity partners, work life options without any stigma.
In 2006-2007, the Alliance also launched a companion initiative to the Call to Action—the Women’s Leadership Institute. This effort focused on providing leadership skills to women attorneys needed to progress in their careers and in law firms. A four-part professional development series addressed self promotion, effective communications, creating positive visibility and career networking. Over 800 women attorneys participated in the Women’s Leadership Institute in 2006-2007.
While over 50 law firms and law departments now are signatories to the Call to Action, the Alliance for Women is continuing its outreach efforts to encourage additional law firms and legal organizations to join in as signatories. This is the third such event specifically designed to reach out to possible new signatories. The Alliance hopes that these efforts will continue to raise awareness about the Call to Action and increase overall participation in this special project. The Call to Action, related guidance and signatories are posted on the Chicago Bar Association’s Web site at <http://www.chicagobar.org/calltoaction>.
The means whereby law firms succeed in progressing the interests of women attorneys has never been more simple, straightforward and readily available. A commitment to the Alliance for Women Call to Action will enable every law firm to improve the leadership opportunities open to women attorneys and in general, enhance a workplace environment where women attorneys are encouraged to succeed. While committing to the Call to Action is a wise business decision for law firms, more important, it is simply the right thing to do.
1. E. Lynn Grayson is a Partner at Jenner & Block in Chicago and Chair of its Women’s Forum. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.