The statistics about women equity partners are bad. There is no shortage of “experts” opining on how to improve the statistics. The solutions often involve a cardigan (apparently the successful woman’s secret weapon), full-time nannies (the successful woman’s not-so-secret weapon), and a miracle.
There are some who offer more specific solutions. I personally love Skadden’s idea of hiring a “den mother” to mentor and guide their young female associates. Indeed, Sheli Rosenberg is correct when she channeled Madeleine Albright’s famous saying that “[t]here’s a place in hell for women who don’t support other women.”
I have had many conversations with small-firm attorneys about whether or not small firms may offer the solution to the gender gap among partners. Unfortunately, there is little to no research regarding the statistics of female partners in small law firms, so the discussions are based on personal experience as opposed to objective facts. Given the sources of the data, the results are, not surprisingly, mixed. Some say that small firms are better for women because the women have direct access to the decision-makers and clients, and there is less politics when it comes to promotion decisions in small firms. Some say that small firms are worse because the firms, unlike Biglaw, often do not disclose demographic information and so feel insulated — and because firm managers, who tend to be male, promotes their own….
There is a women-owned real estate boutique in San Francisco that stands as a prime example of a small firm doing it right when it come to these issues. SSL Law Firm is a 26-person firm and has grown to become the biggest real estate group in the Bay Area. SSL was founded in 2001 by three women, Sara Steppe, Pamela Lakey and Dana Stone. The firm is now one of the “largest women-owned firms anywhere,” according to The Recorder, and “[a]lthough Steppe and Stone have retired from the firm, nine of its 11 partners are female.”
Like many small firms, the attorneys at SSL trade Biglaw salaries for better hours and more control. And the woman-friendly environment is a draw for some. For instance, Sally Shekou “joined [SSL] because she liked the energy of the firm’s young women who were controlling their own destiny.”
What can we learn from the example of SSL Law? First, women-owned law firms seem to be a good environment for women lawyers. Yes, I am shocked also. Second, firms that foster an environment where lawyers have autonomy prove beneficial for women, likely because they are able to manage their schedules so that they can meet their family and professional obligations. Other than calling for women to start their own firms en masse, however, what can small firms do to break the gender gap among partners and influencers?
It has often been said that small firms are more nimble and able to make institutional changes because they lack the bureaucracy that exists in Biglaw. That means that small firms can serve as a laboratory for coming up with solutions to the gender divide. If your firm is doing this, or you have any ideas on what small firms can do to successfully promote and retain women attorneys, I want to hear from you.
Maybe small firms should be held to account for their percentage of women partners, like the large firms that compose the Am Law 200 or are part of the NALP studies, or featured in diversity rankings, like the ones issued by Vault and Am Law. Perhaps all small firms need to get themselves “den mothers,” like Skadden. I do not know the answer, but hopefully together we can come up with an action plan. They solved the debt ceiling problem, so what else do you have to scratch your head about?
When not writing about small law firms for Above the Law, Valerie Katz (not her real name) works at a small firm in Chicago. You can reach her by email at Valerie.L.Katz@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter at @ValerieLKatz.