Conquering Gender Equality in Law

What is your law firm doing to recruit, retain, and promote female talent? In a webinar we co-hosted with Payet, Rey, Cauvi, Pérez Abogados (Peru), lawyers from our member firms offered their insights into client expectations, diversity programs, talent retention, and how COVID has shaped the work environment. Here is what we learned.

How can men be allies?

Fernando Serec, CEO and partner at TozziniFreire (Brazil), gave us several tips from author Carley Hauck on how male colleagues can support gender equality and women in their firms.

  1. Declare yourself a male ally to yourself and your team.
  2. Be mindful of your bias.
  3. Embrace a mindset focused on growth.
  4. Go to the source. Ask women, non-binary people, people of color, etc., how you can help cultivate supportive partnerships.
  5. Speak up and call others out if you see that they are abusing their power.
  6. Step back so others can step forward.
  7. Be an example of mindful communication.
  8. Understand the impact of your words or actions and take responsibility for them.

What are client expectations when it comes to diversity?

With a growing emphasis on diversity in the workplace, businesses seek to create diverse teams within their organizations. These expectations continue when they look for legal representation. Carol Barnhart, a shareholder from Greenberg Traurig (Florida, USA), noted that she had seen a significant increase in multinational corporations requiring diverse deal teams. However, the team's diversity can not be limited to people behind the scenes. Barnhart explained that they want "the people who are actually running the deal (to be) women or other types of minorities, not just a picture in a pitch book."

Maria Elisa Gualandi Verri, a partner at TozziniFreire, has also had experience with businesses that seek diverse legal teams. She explained that a client once picked her team because they were the most diverse. These expectations of diversity, though, are not just for show. Diverse teams meet diverse needs. If a legal team can bring several backgrounds, views, and ideas to the table, they are more likely to approach the problems from a unique perspective that other teams can not.

For diversity programs to be successful, they must be embedded at every business level. This can be challenging in larger firms. How can those firms engage everyone on gender equality practices?

A law firm's diversity efforts should not be judged on how well they follow legislation but rather on the measurable results. Judith Riordan, a partner at Mason Hayes & Curran (Ireland), stated that there is "no point in having detailed policies that take a long time to prepare, but that ultimately sit on someone's desk, and nobody is implementing them." A law firm should look towards committees, events, programs, and the words of their female employees to see the results of their efforts and learn what next steps they need to take.

Also, women cannot be the only ones supporting other women. Firms like Mason Hayes & Curran emphasize male employees attending events and participating in programs that uplift and support women. These actions demonstrate that a firm is spearheading diversity efforts and not just following expectations.

How can firms ensure that the implementation of policies leads to measurable change in gender equality?

Although committees, programs, events, and the like create opportunities for measurable change, firms need to ensure that their efforts are successful and that employees are aware of opportunities and taking advantage of them. Susan Castillo, a partner at Payet, Rey, Cauvi, Pérez Abogados, explained what actions her firm takes to see positive results. Some of these actions include sharing DNI policies within and outside the firm and having the diversity and inclusion committees consistently send out reminders to make employees aware of policies, benefits, and updates. Their human resources department and several partners are also in constant contact with firm members to encourage them to use their benefits, such as maternity and paternity leave. Additionally, Castillo shared that the firm will occasionally conduct surveys or polls to measure the usefulness of policies and whether or not they need to be adjusted to meet member needs.

Strategies such as those used at Payet, Rey, Cauvi, and Pérez Abogados encourage implementation and participation, creating a path for constant growth. Like any other societal issue, diversity is a dynamic topic that cannot be solved with a single solution—diversity programs need to change and adapt often.

What about talent retention? What are firms doing to retain their female talent?

Retaining female talent is crucial for business, not just a requirement for diversity. A firm does not want to interview and train a person, only for them to leave or not fully flourish. While cliché, many speakers noted that women are less likely to ask for promotions or speak up. Due to this issue, firms need to develop the career and skills of their female talent so they are confident enough to seek out the same opportunities as their male counterparts.

For example, there are mentorship programs at Greenberg Traurig and Mason Hayes & Curran where younger female associates and other minorities are paired up with more senior associates. Greenberg Traurig also has a responsible shareholder or partner program, where partners are assigned to someone who is considered a minority within the organization. This program ensures that marginalized groups do not "fall into the shuffle of everyday life" and get assigned to cases that are relevant to their work and have good growth opportunities. This program does not just value and prioritize mentorship but also the development of minority partners.

It is also important to note that demonstrating a culture that promotes flexibility can help retain female talent. However, this is not just flexibility that comes into play during motherhood, but instead accommodates every stage of a woman's life, regardless of kids. Riordan noted that accommodating women based only on their role as mothers can be "a trap that people accidentally fall into." A decisive step towards retaining female talent is providing them with flexibility, time off, and accommodations that take into account more than their roles as mothers or potential mothers.

How are firms addressing equal pay?

In the law profession, at least in the United States, the compensation for associates is typically published and therefore competitive. For this reason, there is little to no disparity in pay at the beginning of people's careers. As their careers develop, however, the gap grows larger. This is due to the opportunities they may or may not get over time, which affect their client numbers, billable hours, deals, etc. To ensure equal pay continues beyond the initial salary, firms must be conscious of empowering and retaining women and giving them equal opportunities along their path.

However, part of the responsibility also lies with the women themselves, especially non-lawyers whose pay is not public. They must recognize that in a competitive market that values diversity and retention, they have more power to negotiate their pay than they realize. Also, firms that do not have equal pay do not last long or have a well-known reputation. That is why it is vital to put the work in even during the interview process to ensure you seek opportunities and companies that fit your needs and desires. As Barnhart put it, "women out there need to take ownership of their careers and future because no one else is going to do it for them."

How did the COVID-19 pandemic positively or negatively impact women advancing in their careers, and what measures are firms taking to address the impacts?

Currently, law firms are taking different approaches to post-pandemic working conditions. Some firms are going back to the office full time, others require only a few days, while a few still require employees to be fully remote. However, one commonality between the firms seems to prevail: a drastic increase in flexibility. Increased flexibility creates several positive outcomes for employees. Parents can fulfill more domestic duties, and those without children see an overall healthier balance between work and their personal lives. These new expectations that do not put a person's value solely on their ability to be physically present at work have also opened the door for mothers looking to make partner. Both during and after pregnancy, there is a period where a woman is understandably unable to be physically present in the workplace. The new expectations of presenteeism lessen the stigma of not being able to be at the office full time and make it easier for mothers to further their careers.

While increased flexibility resulting from COVID-19 has created positive outcomes for employees, firms now worry about how the lack of in-office presence can affect an associate's long-term career. Presenteeism is being redefined, but those with less experience need to consider that being out of the office five days a week can impact their careers and growth. Firms are striving to create a balance where flexibility is prioritized, but associates cannot ignore the importance of in-person connections and client relationships.

Conclusion:

Gender diversity within law firms and the concerns that come with it continue to be discussed, tested, and changed. The sudden arrival of COVID-19 pushed the boundaries of a balanced worklife and continues to encourage companies to explore the future of remote work. With the ball in the court of employees, women are gaining confidence and find themselves in a place where they can actively dismantle and combat gender inequality within their companies. For law firms in this competitive market, programs, events, and committees supporting women and striving to retain female talent are vital for business and growth. Women also need to take steps to be their own advocates and not rely on legislation to get them equal opportunities and pay. In the words of Carol Barnhart, now more than ever, it is vital for "law firms to ensure that, from the top down, women are at the table."

Author

Alyssa Wing, World Law Group's Marketing & Communications Coordinator