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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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  1. He called our nation a nation of cowards because we didn't want to talk about race. That was a cheap shot coming from the top cop. The man who decides who gets the federal government indicts. Wow. Not a gentleman if that is the measure. More importantly, this insult delivered as we all understand, to white people-- without him or anybody needing to explain that is precisely what he meant-- but this is an insult to timid white persons who fear the government and don't want to say anything about race for fear of being accused a racist. With all the legal heat that can come down on somebody if they say something which can be construed by a prosecutor like Mr Holder as racist, is it any wonder white people-- that's who he meant obviously-- is there any surprise that white people don't want to talk about race? And as lawyers we have even less freedom lest our remarks be considered violations of the rules. Mr Holder also demonstrated his bias by publically visiting with the family of the young man who was killed by a police offering in the line of duty, which was a very strong indicator of bias agains the offer who is under investigation, and was a failure to lead properly by letting his investigators do their job without him predetermining the proper outcome. He also has potentially biased the jury pool. All in all this worsens race relations by feeding into the perception shared by whites as well as blacks that justice will not be impartial. I will say this much, I do not blame Obama for all of HOlder's missteps. Obama has done a lot of things to stay above the fray and try and be a leader for all Americans. Maybe he should have reigned Holder in some but Obama's got his hands full with other problelms. Oh did I mention HOlder is a bank crony who will probably get a job in a silkstocking law firm working for millions of bucks a year defending bankers whom he didn't have the integrity or courage to hold to account for their acts of fraud on the United States, other financial institutions, and the people. His tenure will be regarded by history as a failure of leadership at one of the most important jobs in our nation. Finally and most importantly besides him insulting the public and letting off the big financial cheats, he has been at the forefront of over-prosecuting the secrecy laws to punish whistleblowers and chill free speech. What has Holder done to vindicate the rights of privacy of the American public against the illegal snooping of the NSA? He could have charged NSA personnel with violations of law for their warrantless wiretapping which has been done millions of times and instead he did not persecute a single soul. That is a defalcation of historical proportions and it signals to the public that the government DOJ under him was not willing to do a damn thing to protect the public against the rapid growth of the illegal surveillance state. Who else could have done this? Nobody. And for that omission Obama deserves the blame too. Here were are sliding into a police state and Eric Holder made it go all the faster.

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