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Are law offices gender neutral?

Holly Wheeler
September 25, 2013
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Equal work deserves equal pay. That was the mantra of those lobbying for the Equal Pay Act in 1963. President John F. Kennedy signed the bill into law, giving everyone, regardless of race or sex, the right to be paid equally for the same job.

The EPA, however, was primarily a vehicle to improve pay for women, who at the time were earning about 60 cents for every dollar paid a man. In signing the Act, Kennedy stated, “Our economy today depends upon women in the labor force.” It’s doubtful that he realized the extent to which that dependency would grow.

clifford Clifford

In 2013, it’s a given that women work – in fact, 58.6 percent or 72 million women are employed or are actively seeking employment in the United States, a 47 percent jump since the law was passed. Despite this, equal pay isn’t as top-of-mind as it was 50 years ago. Perhaps women have come so far that in certain professions it’s considered a given. More likely it is because everyone knows women still are paid less than men (80 percent on average) and since discussion of pay in the workplace is not just taboo but can get you fired, it’s become nothing more than the elephant in the conference room.

Savvy women from all levels of the business world, aware of the status quo, are intent on getting rid of that elephant once and for all. At local law firms, associates, partners and employees alike are joining ranks to create training and professional development opportunities, shepherd young associates through mentoring programs and ease the integration of work and life so women can realize professional and financial success.

Grassroots growth

A recent public radio broadcast featured a story about compensation for women lawyers, pointing out that they earn just two-thirds of what male lawyers earn.

“It is a very interesting statistic because half of graduating law students are women and that same percentage is represented at the associate level,” said Stephanie Cassman, an equity partner at Lewis Wagner LLC who practices employment litigation. “It drops off at the partner level to more like 30 percent so we can see where the problem begins. For equity partner, it drops to 16 percent.”

Although these statistics are dismal, a look back at where women were in the practice of law when the EPA was enacted might put things in perspective. In the 1960s, only 3 percent of law school graduates were women.  

Although that number grew over time, Brenda Horn, a deputy managing partner at Ice Miller LLC who has practiced there since 1981, recalled how different the gender landscape was at that time.

“I was the first woman in our practice group, and now maybe half are women,” she said. “There were 80 lawyers at Ice Miller, and 10 or 12 were women. At that time that was a high number.”

horn Horn

Similarly, Shaun Clifford, an equity partner at Faegre Baker Daniels LLC who has been with the firm for more than 18 years, remembers an upswing in the number of women who graduated law school with her in 1985.

“There were very few female partners at the time,” she said. There were four or five at a firm she worked at in Washington, D.C.

Those small populations realized that there is strength in numbers. Grassroots groups of women worked together to provide support for one another, give advice when it was sought, and lend personal support when needed. Involvement in the community made these trailblazers role models for other women, an unspoken encouragement to practice law.

“In some ways, from the time that I started there was a critical mass of other women here that I could talk to and gain support from,” Horn said. “When I talk to many of my peers where there wasn’t really a core of women, things were more difficult for them. There’s something to having a critical mass of folks so that it’s not so isolating.”

That camaraderie hasn’t gone away. The informal support networks of old have become formalized training and support programs designed to give participants the tools to develop personally and professionally.

Fluid formality

Today, law firms are shedding their conservative, male-dominated image with initiatives that incorporate groups led by women whose objectives are to provide training, education and professional coaching to other women in the organization. For larger firms like Faegre Baker Daniels and Ice Miller, these initiatives have brought home national awards from Working Mother Magazine and Flex-Time Lawyers LLC, which gave each a place on its list of the 50 Best Law Firms for Women for 2013.

“We have our Women’s Forum for Achievement,” said Clifford. “It’s where a committee of women come together to help other women develop their careers and learn skills for professional development. The steering committee has representatives from all of our offices across the country and helps connect women at Faegre Baker Daniels to outside training or networking opportunities or leadership opportunities in the community.”

The Forum connects with women on all levels by offering activities that range from networking lunches with senior attorneys to a book club where members read anything from career-related titles to novels. The Forum offers Business Breaks, short informational learning sessions that address topics key to professional development and business practice, while Leadership Lunch & Learns are hour-long seminars where outside presenters educate staff on issues that are pertinent to both their professional and personal lives.

“Some topics draw a large number of attorneys – both men and women,” Clifford said. “An expert comes and discusses a topic that’s interesting and important to our staff,” like developing client relationships or improving communication skills.

Firm-wide today, 37 percent of Faegre Baker Daniels attorneys and 25 percent of partners are female. Nearly half of the firm’s associates are women.

cassman Cassman

At Ice Miller, the Working Mother award recognized the firm’s achievements in leadership development for women and health promotion. The firm encourages its women attorneys to complete a leadership development class from an outside organization such as the United Way or the Lacey Leadership Foundation. Doing so expands personal knowledge and community involvement, which also is part of being an attorney.

“We created a women’s initiative and we use that group to talk and brainstorm ideas about how we might support women in their community activities and their client development,” Horn said. “We’ll plan events – training that we’ve done through that group. We are retaining women lawyers who have wide experience. That gives us a lot of experiences to share so we can learn from both directions.”

Ice Miller currently has 105 female attorneys on their 300-attorney roster, and 40 of those women are partners.

Other local firms have similar programs that may come in the form of structured mentorship or day-to-day interaction. Lewis Wagner participates annually in a national women’s leadership conference and a senior/junior associate mentoring program called STARS, while informal encouragement is passed word of mouth.

“There are things that women feel are confrontations while men look at them as conversations,” Cassman said. “Be prepared to advocate on behalf of yourself and what your accomplishments are. It’s not boasting – if you don’t tell, then who will?”

Active associations

Women at individual law firms have made great strides since 1963, but organizations like the American Bar Association and the Women’s Bar Association also have been involved.

“The American Bar Association created a task force on gender equity that gathered a lot of data and released it this spring,” Cassman said. “At the management partner level, women need to get on the committees that matter: the finance committee, the compensation committee. You have to ask, you have to run, put your name in the hat.”

Statistically, only 7 percent of women negotiate on the initial job offer as opposed to 55 percent of men. Even women lawyers, who are professional negotiators, can be timid about asking for more money.

“Women need to be told and shown and have models and mentors,” Cassman said.•

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  5. Tina has left the building.

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