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September 18, 2014

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Law Quarterly:

Unequal partners in law: Bias or women’s personal choice?

Lisa Wong Lackland

Lisa Wong Lackland

We’ve all seen the statistics: For the last 20 years, women comprised nearly half of law school graduates, yet despite steady gains in partner ranks, still account for fewer than one in five big-firm partners. Law firms hire many women associates, but they often “leak out” along the way to partnership.

Experts have posited various reasons for this. According to a recent law360.com article, reasons include “unintentional stereotyping, lingering bias in performance reviews, a dearth of mentors, diminished access to top-ranking partners, a scarcity of important assignments and the family burdens on women.”

But what about other reasons? I’ll add my own, nonexpert reason to the list — many women don’t want to be a partner at a big law firm. And that’s OK.

Consider one of the most visible women in the world — Michelle Obama. Technically, she is a female law school graduate, but not a partner. The first lady is a Harvard law grad. She’s smart, driven and a host of other superlatives. She is all that. Does anyone question whether she could be a law firm partner, if that’s what she wanted to be? No. Obviously, she has chosen to forgo the partnership track for other pursuits. (Incidentally, so has her husband).

What is not OK is women being denied the opportunity to become a partner. This is where law firms need to continue to improve. Again, experts have posited many ways to foster improvement. Strong mentoring and recognition/acceptance of work/life balance including allowing for flexible schedules are often cited as important in keeping a woman on the path to partnership. There are other means, but these two appear on almost all of the lists.

Strong mentoring is important for all young lawyers, both men and women. Being an associate is hard. The work is challenging (if you are lucky) and negotiating the various administrative and political aspects of law firm life can be daunting. Having a mentor — someone who’s been there, done that — really helps. Of note, I believe female associates benefit from mentoring by both female and male role models. I know I have. Gender is irrelevant so long as the associate forms a strong bond with a mentor who is committed to the young lawyer’s development.

Another key to adding more women partners is that firms need to recognize work/life balance, including allowing for flexible schedules. Paid parental leave is a start, but that’s just the bare minimum. Firms need to extend the notion further and allow a woman to stay on partnership track even if she has taken time off to have a family or if she wants to work part time. There is really no way around this one because there is no changing that the prime years for gearing up for partnership often coincide with a woman’s childbearing years.

I am proud to be a partner at Lewis and Roca, a firm that has programs and policies in place that focus on the retention and advancement of women. Forty years ago, long before the terms “gender diversity” and “retention plan” even existed, Lewis and Roca was one of the first (if not the first) big law firms in the Southwest to hire a female associate. This associate, Mary Schroeder, went on to become the first female partner at any major law firm west of the Rocky Mountains. (She went on to become chief judge of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.) To this day, my firm has continued with its commitment to women. In addition to being recognized for the number of women partners in its ranks, three of its governing committees and one of its practice groups are led by female attorneys.

Progress has been made. But it has come about slowly. Without greater effort, the “leakage” will continue.

Strong mentoring needs to be a point of emphasis. Likewise, a woman’s competing responsibilities need to be recognized and accommodated. Law firm leaders, both male and female, need to remain committed to providing a woman with the environment necessary to becoming a partner, if that is her chosen path.

Lisa Wong Lackland is a partner in Las Vegas with the law firm Lewis and Roca

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