Female lawyers making their own tracks to success

On a typical day, Mindy Mora arrives at her law office about 8 a.m. and leaves 12 hours later. She will drive home, eat dinner and put in a few more hours of work, even taking client calls late at night. “Being a partner at a law firm is not a 9 to 5 job,” she says.

The grueling lifestyle, even with the cache of a partner title and a six-figure salary, is one Mora, a bankruptcy attorney at Bilzin Sumberg, knows young female law associates increasingly are shunning. “They want to be able to have a family and enjoy their family.”

In Florida’s competitive legal industry, pressure to meet quotas for billable hours, bring in business and service clients who want instant responses is creating demands on lawyers that are all encompassing. That pressure has led more women to forge their own paths — even to hang their own shingles — rather than navigate the politics of big law firms.

The excruciating requirements of a big firm partnership are one reason that Eleanor Barnett left Mora’s firm to practice at Heller Waldman in Coconut Grove, a commercial litigation boutique with seven attorneys. Barnett, a mother of two, is a partner at the firm and says while the client demands might be the same, she doesn’t have the internal meetings and politicking that can be time-consuming at a larger firm. “That can make a big difference for women who are trying to balance motherhood and a busy litigation practice.”

The trend toward talented female lawyers moving on to practice law outside big corporate firms has created opportunities and success stories in South Florida. There are female solo practitioners who have built significant practices in niche areas and women who have become stand-out partners at smaller law firms. There are more women who sit as judges and mediators and others who hold positions as general counsel at local companies and municipalities.

To be sure, the big firms with the top legal work and fat paychecks continue to attract aspiring female attorneys in South Florida. But the attraction may be cooling. New survey data shows that for the first time in a decade the ranks of female attorneys are thinning, even at entry positions. And worse, women are not reaching the top.

Women lawyers have yet to make significant inroads in the power structure and profit sharing at firms. Many women face an inability to ascend higher than non-equity partner status, where lawyers hold the partner title but without the power, prestige, influence and compensation of true ownership.

A recent National Association of Women Lawyers survey showed that just 16 percent of women were equity partners in American Lawyer top 200 firms. That percentage hasn’t budged much for the last 20 years.

This ceiling is especially troubling given that women lawyers already leave big-firm practices at a greater pace than their male counterparts. “Now, a newly reported narrowing of the pipeline at the entry level only further decreases the pool of women available for promotion,” says NAWL President Heather Giordanella.

The trend has some managing partners concerned enough that they are ramping up efforts to advance their rising stars to partner and tackle the higher female attrition rates. Large firms such as Holland & Knight, Carlton Fields and Hunton & Williams have active women’s initiatives in Florida.

Tammy Knight, a partner at Holland & Knight in Fort Lauderdale, heads the national Women’s Initiative at her firm, recognized as one of the most effective in the country. More than 300 female Holland & Knight lawyers participate.

At Knight’s firm, much like others, women occupy about a third of non-equity partner positions. But they are represented in much smaller numbers as equity partners. Knight says that leap requires lawyers to bring in large dollar volumes of new business.

“Historically, a differentiating factor for women is that they have a more difficult time originating business,” she explains. Knight says myriad dynamics factor in: “Timing is a big one.” When women have the opportunity to become equity partner, it’s usually right in the middle of their child-bearing years, when networking at night and attending lunch functions are difficult to fit around the demands of the workday and family life, she says. Another contributor is corporate culture. Companies tend to shy away from giving young women their business. “It is uncommon in our field to find many women in their 30s serving as lead outside attorneys for big corporate clients.”

To mentor, Knight says she and other partners take female associates along on pitches, “to see what it looks like and what it takes.” But at the end of the day, she says, “It’s still about the client taking that leap.”

Clearly, the numbers bear this out: Fifty-six percent of female law partners were considered relatively “bookless” compared to 38 percent of male partners, according to the National Association of Women Lawyers survey of the nation’s 200 largest law firms.

Gary Sasso, president and CEO of Carlton Fields, says big firms, like his, need women attorneys — at all levels. Some clients have matters they want overseen by women, judges and juries often react well to them in the courtroom, and for internal purposes he finds diversity promotes more innovative thinking. “When we’re doing brainstorming, business development or setting policies, we want a diverse group in the room.”

Sasso has seen the troubling numbers that depict a glass ceiling at the country’s top law firms. He says his firm makes one-on-one coaching available to teach women how to drum up business. While he admits there may be subtle impediments to their success in bringing in enough business to earn them equity partnerships, he finds women lawyers often opt for non-equity status, which can accommodate a part-time schedule, reduced travel and less pressure to bring in business. “I think it’s a reflection of choices made as opposed to barriers imposed.”

Nationally, efforts are underway to lobby firms to not only make more women equity partners but also to put more women on governing and compensation committees, where pay, strategy and partnership decisions are made.

Some suggest the solution, one that might curb departures, is a fresh look at law firms’ institutional practices for making equity partners and putting more emphasis on overall performance and contribution. Sasso says his firm moved more in this direction a few years ago, somewhat relaxing how lawyers qualify for ownership and a voice in firm management. The change at Carlton Fields hasn’t yet significantly impacted the gender makeup of equity partners, but it has opened the door for more equality in pay, Sasso says. “It’s a small group who hits home runs in any firm, regardless of gender.”

For now, the ultimate solution for women attorneys who aim to increase their perceived worth at firms, rather than leave, may be to go out and bring in new clients — if they can make the time commitment.

Eight years ago, Cheryl Wilke became the youngest female equity partner at her 525-lawyer firm Hinshaw & Culbertson, based in Chicago. Today, Wilke manages the firm’s Fort Lauderdale office and sits on the firm’s executive and diversity committees. Married, but with no children, she says she was groomed by a male partner. Wilke says she traveled with her mentor and watched how he developed relationships and asked for business. She tries to groom up-and-coming women at her firm. “For some women, that’s intimidating or they are so busy they don’t have time to think about it. I feel women need to be more aggressive internally and externally and prioritize business development.”

Susan Healy, president of the Florida Association of Women Lawyers, says her organization realizes that women at both large and small firms need more help with the vital skills of rainmaking and marketing. Her organization plans to do more programming along these lines, including showing women how to value and market themselves at a time when there is already intense competition among firms and the 11 law schools in the state are continually pumping more lawyers into the market. For now, the compensation gap is huge and women continue to bill less per hour than men: According to the Florida Bar, the median total gross income in Florida from all legal work last year for men was $155,000 compared to $80,000 for women.

“The initiatives have to go deeper than they are now,” Healy said. “We have to give women skills to achieve at all levels.”

Meanwhile, young female attorneys like Amanda Star Frazer see opportunity at smaller firms. “The work is intellectually sophisticated and we have big and small clients. I get to practice in state and federal court but I’m at a firm where quality of life is very important,” said Frazer, an associate at Levine Kellogg Lehman Schneider & Grossman in Miami. Frazer sees opportunity to become a partner — if she wants that path. Working at a smaller firm gives her exposure to clients and legal counsel, something less common at larger firms with more layers, she says. The exposure, she says, has enabled her to network with business owners and bring in business from existing clients. “I have a book of business and I think it will continue to grow.”

Women who venture out on their own say it’s a struggle, too. But the payoff can come sooner than if they stay at big firms, and they have more control over their schedules.

Nydia Menendez used to be an associate at Holland & Knight but now has her own firm in Hollywood. Her niche is defending companies in tax and audit disputes. However, during the recession she expanded into other areas including real estate closings, estate planning and bankruptcy. “I make three times as much as when I was working for a big firm, but of course, I have overhead.”

According to the Florida Bar, nearly a quarter of female attorneys in the state practice on their own, and that number is expected to rise. Healy, a partner at Vernon & Healy in Naples and president of FAWL, says she doubts the number of women at Florida’s larger firms will drastically increase in the near future. Based on membership information, she predicts women’s participation in small firms and other law occupations will continue to grow and female attorneys will redefine the meaning of a successful career.

Yolanda Cash Jackson, a partner at Becker & Poliakoff in Fort Lauderdale, already sees women lawyers of color redefining success. They’re foregoing law firms and becoming legal counsel for businesses or governments. “In those jobs, they’re judged on merit. They don’t have to schmooze and bring in business.”

Jackson is one of the rare breed of black women law partners at large Florida law firms and is one of two women on her well-entrenched firm’s eight-member management committee. According to a Catalyst study, women of color were more likely than any other group to experience exclusion, become stymied in advancement, and consider leaving law firms. Even more, 80 percent of law firms have only two, one or no women on their governing committees, which average about 10 members.

Jackson says she reached the top because she found ways to bring in business, by attracting clients such as black colleges and companies that emphasize diversity. “There are artificial barriers that you encounter with rainmaking,” she says. For example, men might not want to invite a single woman to attend a golf weekend. “We [women] have to have our own network,” says Jackson, who founded a networking group for black women professionals.

Jackson says she feels a great responsibility to ensure she has female successors in firm management, in part because it’s more profitable for Becker & Poliakoff to be representative of the community. She is hopeful other women in management at their firms are doing the same thing.

“I’m looking at women in the pipeline, coming up in the ranks, asking myself as a member of the management committee, are these women getting a fair shake? Are we preparing them and what can I do to make sure that I’m not the last one?”

Clearly, some women are in such a position to effect change.

Just last week, Akerman Senterfitt, one of the largest firms in Florida, announced it named Mary Carroll chair of its national corporate practice group. Carroll, a 12-year firm veteran, has an impressive client roster and will oversee about 80 lawyers in 18 offices. “It is pretty rare to see female lawyers in management at most large firms. I’ve been groomed and mentored for years in hopes I would move into a management position. I think women need to find a firm that’s committed to encouraging women to stay.”

At Greenberg Traurig, Hilarie Bass has proved women can succeed at high levels. Bass recently completed an eight-year term as the national chair of the firm’s 600-member litigation department, serves on the firm’s Executive Committee, and holds the prestigious position of chair of the American Bar Association Litigation Section.

On a broader scale, Judy Lockhart hopes she will see more female lawyers in management at firms around the world. Lockhart not only manages her 100-lawyer New York firm, she is chair of Meritas, a global alliance of 175 small and mid-size law firms. Lockhart predicts it will become increasingly difficult for women to thrive at big firms, and more conducive for them to succeed at smaller firms.

“Practicing law at that level and balancing an outside life is hard for women and men,” Lockhart says. “Going out on your own and becoming masters of your universe is a great alternative.”

 

Source:  Miami Herald