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    Wisconsin Lawyer
    May 01, 2013

    On Balance: 5 Ways to Retain and Promote Women Lawyers

    Although nearly as many women as men graduate from U.S. law schools, men lawyers still heavily predominate in the profession’s top tiers, as equity partners, firm managing partners, and judges. Learn how law firms can do more to rectify this imbalance.

    Paula M. Davis-Laack

    CraneIn 2012, Wm. T. (Bill) Robinson III, the American Bar Association’s immediate past president, penned an article outlining the dismal statistics regarding women’s advancement in the legal profession.1 Since release of his article, both Catalyst and the National Association of Women Lawyers have issued reports outlining the status of women’s advancement in the legal profession. Unfortunately, the numbers haven’t changed; in fact, they haven’t changed much in a long time. Here are some of the current U.S. statistics:

    • Women made up 47.2 percent of law students in the 2009-10 class.2
    • In 2012, women were 31.1 percent of all lawyers.3
    • The percentage of women equity partners in large law firms remains stuck at approximately 15 percent.4
    • The percentages of women equity partners and women associates have declined slightly in the past two years.5
    • Approximately 70 percent of staff attorneys are women (this is the only category in which women constitute a majority).6
    • Only 15.6 percent of Wisconsin judges are women, compared to 29.6 percent in Minnesota, 27.3 percent in Illinois, 25.7 percent in Michigan, and 23.5 percent in Iowa.7

    What These Numbers Mean for You

    The lack of progress for women could be having a negative impact on your business’s bottom line. Several studies have concluded that companies with the best records of promoting women have substantially higher returns on equity, revenue, and assets and total return to shareholders; in fact, “the companies with the very best records of promoting women beat the industry average by 116% in terms of equity, 46% in terms of revenue, and 41% in terms of assets.”8

    Paula Davis-LaackPaula Davis-Laack, Marquette 2002, is an internationally published writer and stress and resilience expert. She has provided resilience-skill training to professionals worldwide, including lawyers, educators, and military personnel. Her online magazine, Build Your Strong, is a resource to help professionals manage stress and build happy, healthy lives.

    Given the condition of the economy and the changes going on within the legal profession, firms can’t afford to leave additional dollars on the table nor can they afford to have valuable talent walk out the door. With that in mind, here are five things firms can do to become workplaces that will attract women lawyers and encourage them to move into leadership roles.

    Five Ways to Retain and Promote Women Attorneys

    1) Value Flexibility and Walk the Talk. Work-life balance is one of the most often discussed topics among lawyers. One study found that approximately 44 percent of men lawyers had a spouse who is employed full time, compared to approximately 84 percent of women lawyers.9 Nearly one-half of women lawyers cited “work-life balance as one of their top three reasons for selecting their current employer.”10 All too often, firms have flex policies that are discussed publicly but are not valued or supported culturally. A 2008 NALP survey revealed that while 98 percent of the 1,500 survey respondents allowed part-time work schedules, only 5.6 percent of all lawyers work part time; in addition, 52 percent of those firms with a part-time option did not offer it to entry-level associates.11

    Firms should promote their work-life policies not only to an external audience but also within the organization to the very people who might take advantage of such programs. Practice group chairs and members of prominent firm committees should publicly show support for these programs via firm-wide newsletters, emails, and other important channels of communication. Finally, give new hires (both laterals and new associates) specific statistics showing how these programs are being used. If these types of conversations aren’t happening or statistics showing support for these programs are lacking, then it means that firms need to figure out why that is the case and address issues.

    Working flexibly does not necessarily mean working less; it often just means working differently.

    2) Leverage Strengths. Research by the Gallup Organization shows that the most effective leaders invest in their strengths, surround themselves with the right people to maximize their teams, and understand their followers’ needs.12 In addition, workplaces in which employees believe they have the opportunity to showcase their strengths have significantly higher rates of loyalty and employee retention along with a much higher rate of productivity.13

    Have attorneys take a strengths assessment. One popular, free strengths assessment called the VIA (Values in Action) Survey of Character Strengths can be found at Use that assessment as a springboard to answer the question, “Are you leaving your best self behind?” In other words, are there strengths that you have that you aren’t bringing most fully to your work as a lawyer? If so, then determine how can you incorporate those strengths more fully into your day.

    3) Connect the Dots to Meaning. Meaning is crucial to job success and resilience for many people, but it is particularly important for women. Women tend to seek out companies that care about their employees and support their local communities. Many women will eventually disengage if they don’t see how their work fits into a broader, more significant context.14 Research points to four specific things that organizations can do to foster a culture of meaning:

    • Provide work that has a positive impact on the well-being of human beings;
    • Provide work that is linked to an important personal value;
    • Provide work that has a lasting legacy or ripple effect; and
    • Provide work that builds a sense of community.15

    Lawyers work every day on legal matters that affect people in a variety of ways. Look for opportunities to connect your work to meaning and tell colleagues these stories as well.

    4) Be Willing to Have the Tough Conversations. Despite strides that have been made, gender bias is still a very real issue in law firms and other businesses. Women walk a fine tightrope (also called being in a double bind) when they must choose between being liked and being respected. In addition, women lawyers hit the “maternal wall” when they are assumed to be incompetent or uncommitted if they choose to have families.16

    Psychologists Francis Flynn and Cameron Anderson conducted research using a Harvard Business School case study about a real person, Heidi Roizen. Roizen was a very successful venture capitalist and entrepreneur with an outgoing personality and large professional network. Flynn and Anderson gave two versions of the case study, with only one difference between them, to two groups of MBA students. The only difference between the versions? In one, the name Heidi was changed to Howard. While the students rated Heidi and Howard as equally competent, the students described Heidi as overly aggressive and they were, overall, much less likely to want to work with her or hire her. This experiment highlights what other research has shown: success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women.17

    5) Implement the 30 Percent Solution. The idea of the “30% Solution” originated during the Fourth United Nations Conference on the Status of Women, held in Beijing in 1995. Specifically, “the conference determined that the presence of 30% women in decision-making bodies is the tipping point to have women’s ideas, values, and approaches resonate.…The 30% Solution was viewed as the essential catalyst to reach equilibrium in decision making.”18 Women hold approximately 20 percent of the positions on law firms’ highest governance committees, and only 4 percent of firms have a woman as the firm-wide managing partner.19 Law firms need to up their game in this regard so that women lawyers are being heard at the highest levels of decision-making.


    The legal profession is lagging behind other industries and countries that recognize the value that having more women at the top means to an organization. The time to change this is now.


    1 Wm. T. Robinson, Advancement of Women Lawyers: Barriers Must Be Removed so Female Attorneys Can Equally Participate (ABA, Jan. 1, 2012).

    2 Catalyst, Catalyst Quick Take: Women in the Law in the U.S. 1 (New York, NY: Catalyst 2013). Catalyst is a nonprofit organization with a mission to expand opportunities for women and business, at

    3 Id. at 3.

    4 Barbara M. Flom, Report of the Seventh Annual NAWL National Survey on Retention and Promotion of Women in Law Firms 3 (Nat’l Ass’n of Women Lawyers & NAWL Found., Oct. 2012).

    5 Id.

    6 Id. at 8.

    7 Telephone interview with the Hon. Lisa Neubauer, Wisconsin Court of Appeals, Milwaukee, Feb. 8, 2013 (citing information released at the 2012 Judicial Glass Ceiling Conference).

    8 Claire Shipman & Katty Kay, Women-omics 2-3 (New York, NY: HarperCollins 2009); see also Roy D. Adler,Women in the Executive Suite Correlates to High Profits; Roy D. Adler, Feb. 27, 2009. Profit, Thy Name is…Woman? Pacific Standard Magazine; Connecting Corporate Performance to Gender Diversity (New York, NY: Catalyst, Jan. 2004).

    9 Flom, supra note 4, at 11.

    10 Nancy Levit & Douglas O. Linder, The Happy Lawyer: Making a Good Life in the Law 173 (New York, NY: Oxford Univ. Press 2010).

    11 Maria Vogel-Short, Part-Time Lawyers Still a Rarity and Three Quarters are Women, Survey Says (Jan. 2, 2009).

    12 Tom Rath & Barry Conchie, Strengths-Based Leadership 2-3 (New York, NY: Gallup Press 2008).

    13 James K. Harter, Frank L. Schmidt & Theodore L. Hayes, Business-Unit-Level Relationship between Employee Satisfaction, Employee Engagement, and Business Outcomes: A Meta-Analysis, 87 J. Applied Psychol. 268, 273-74 (2002).

    14 Marcia Reynolds, Wander Woman: How High-Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction 187 (San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers 2010).

    15 Kim Cameron, Positive Leadership: Strategies for Extraordinary Performance 72-73 (San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers 2008).

    16 Joan C. Williams & the Center for WorkLife Law. Gender Bias Learning Project. For information, visit

    17 For more on the case study, see Kathleen McGinn & Nicole Tempest, “Heidi Roizen,” Harvard Business School Case 800-228 (April 2010; revised from original Jan. 2000 version); see also Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead 39-51 (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013).

    18 Linda Tarr-Whelan, Women Lead the Way: Your Guide to Stepping Up to Leadership and Changing the World 19 (San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers 2009).

    19 Flom, supra note 4, at 5.

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