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Opportunity for Women: Who Can Succeed on Your Firm's Pitch?

KCBA Bar Bulletin
November 7, 2011


November 2011 King County Bar Bulletin

A group of young, dedicated women brought jubilation and success to their beleaguered nation this July. They are new on the international stage of women's soccer. Yet they captured the World Cup and uplifted a nation.

Never before had the Japanese team beaten the U.S. Women's National Team. They were not expected to reach the final stages of the tournament. They had heart. They persevered. Their victory at the FIFA Women's World Cup 2011 in Germany marks a turning point for women's soccer.

More and more countries are becoming contenders on the international women's soccer stage as young female athletes across the world get opportunities to try soccer, excel and gain competitive experience. Powerhouses like the USA and Germany are finding themselves facing competition, not from a handful of teams, but from countries that traditionally have not been contenders.

This is adding unprecedented depth to the women's game. The Women's World Cup will no longer be a showcase for a few countries, but a real contest as nations from across the globe vie for the top.

How is this possible? Increasing opportunity.

Traditionally, since the passage of Title IX, female athletes from the USA and other select nations have been at the top of the game because of the experience and coaching they receive in college. Top players from around the world still come to U.S. colleges to develop their skills and tactics.

But other countries are finding ways to provide opportunities to their young women, including expanding opportunities for girls to play in their communities. The United States now boasts a professional league for women that draws international players.1 As this opportunity grows, the quality of the women's game rises. The results were showcased in July as the tournament was broadcast worldwide.

Also in July, Roberta D. Liebenberg published an article in the ABA's The Young Lawyer entitled "Plugging the 'Leaky Pipeline' of Women Attorney Attrition."2 Liebenberg is the chair of the ABA's Commission on Women in the Profession. She reminds us that an inverse pyramid exists for women in law firms.

"The higher up you look at each level of a law firm, the smaller the percentage of women you find," writes Liebenberg.

The message of the ABA Commission is the same one demonstrated by the Japanese team. Just like potential athletes require the opportunity to play and develop, women attorneys need opportunity to rise to the top of private law firms. If law firms don't provide a pitch on which women can contribute and thrive, and be measured for the skills and abilities they offer, women cannot be part of the team.

Women attorneys who would otherwise be starting players will disappear, moving on to other teams or pursuing different opportunities away from private firms. The statistics demonstrate the lopsided attrition. Total J.D. enrollment was 47.2% female and 52.8% male in the academic year 2009–2010.3 Associates in 2010 were 45.41% female, but women partners were only 19.43%.4

The leaky pipeline costs law firms. It hurts our profession to lose the talent, creativity, hard work and experience these attorneys offer. It hurts a firm's bottom line to lose attorneys trained by the firm when these attorneys reach seniority, and can command higher rates and supervise and mentor others.

If law firms offer a system that gives opportunity and reward to its female attorneys, they will come. They will stay. It's time to evolve. It's time to tinker.

Design a pitch that responds to the ABA Commission's recommendations and your legal team will be proud to field women attorneys. These attorneys will be proud to contribute. Proud to be valued. And on good days, they will hoist the trophy with you and celebrate the successes.

Japan can tell you. Giving opportunity to women brings rewards. For Japan, its women athletes brought hope and pride when it was needed. Congratu­lations to the young women of the Japanese team and to the nation that gave them the opportunity to be great. With effort, the legal profession can rise to these challenges and give female attorneys the opportunity to be great, too.

These are the recommendations of the ABA Commission:

Best Practices for Law Firms

Ensuring equal assignment opportunities: Firms should develop metrics to track assignments to ensure that women are given opportunities to work on significant, high-revenue matters for important clients and partners.

Instituting gender-neutral evaluation systems: Clearly defined performance evaluation criteria should be formulated and communicated. Supervising lawyers need to be educated about implicit biases that can affect performance evaluations. Firm committees that evaluate associates must be diverse and include more than a token woman or minority lawyer.

Making partnership criteria transparent: Associates must be apprised of the specific competencies and skills they need to advance to partnership. Firms should monitor the advancement of women lawyers, particularly to equity partnership and leadership positions.

Revamping compensation systems: Billable hours should be de-emphasized and greater significance should be given to the quality and efficiency of the work performed. Crushing billable hour quotas often penalize women, who typically shoulder both family and professional responsibilities.

Increasing business development opportunities: Women lawyers must be provided meaningful business opportunities and training, including access to coaching, networking events, and client development functions.

De-stigmatizing alternative work arrangements: While more than 90% of law firms have adopted part-time and flex-time work arrangements, less than 7% of all lawyers avail themselves of these options, and 81% of those who opt for such schedules are women. Unfortunately, there is still a stigma attached to women who utilize alternative work arrangements, and, therefore, many women are unwilling to do so.

Commission research has found that women who worked part-time were perceived to be less committed, received more negative performance evaluations, and were not assigned complex and challenging matters necessary to advance in their firms. Consequently, in too many cases their partnership aspirations were derailed and they left their firms.

Implementing "on-ramp" programs: Firms should institute programs to facilitate attorneys' transition from part-time to full-time and to assist women who are returning to practice after taking a leave. Also, firms should create policies that enable those who are working part-time to attain partnership.

Best Practices for Individuals

Be proactive in promoting your career: Let partners know of your interest in working on particular matters, and affirmatively seek out challenging and rewarding assignments.

Be visible: Women lawyers should strive to increase their profiles, both within their law firms and in their community. Become active in bar associations and community groups, look for speaking and writing opportunities, and seek other ways to attain leadership roles and enhance your reputation.

Network, network, network: Business development has become increasingly important, even for young associates. It is imperative to broaden your base of contacts and to affirmatively reach out in both social and business contexts for potential referrals.

Take risks: To advance in your career, you must be willing to take risks and not let occasional setbacks discourage or deter you.

Be strategic in working part-time: If you work part time, be flexible and accessible so you can handle emergencies that arise on days when you are out of the office. Also, you should develop a strategic plan to transition back to full-time, seeking out mentors and cham­pions who can help you.

The continued high rate of attrition of women attorneys hurts not only individual women, but also law firms and the profession as a whole. The retention and advancement of women lawyers is a core value, which must be given top priority. It is high time that we finally fix the leaky pipeline, and implementation of the best practices discussed above will help accomplish this important and salutary goal.

About the Commission on Women in the Profession

The ABA Commission on Women in the Profession is the national voice for women lawyers, forging a new and better profession that ensures that women have equal opportunities for professional growth and advancement commensurate with their male counterparts. Its new book,The Road to Independence: 101 Women's Journeys to Starting Their Own Law Firms, is a series of letters written by women founders of a variety of law practices. Among the Commission's programs are the annual Women in Law Leadership (WILL) Academy.

Averil Budge Rothrock focuses her practice on appellate review in the Seattle office of the Pacific Northwest regional firm Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt. In her spare time, Rothrock plays, coaches and follows "the beautiful game." She can be reached at

1 Women's Professional Soccer, or WPS, is comprised of six teams playing on the East Coast. See Also of note is the Women's Premier Soccer League, or WPSL, with 62 teams across the country, designed to provide high-level competition for women players and to develop players for professional and international teams. See

2 Liebenberg, Roberta D., "Plugging the 'Leaky Pipeline' of Women Attorney Attrition," Vol. 15 No. 9, American Bar Association: The Young Lawyer (July/August 2011).

3 American Bar Association, "Enrollment and Degrees Awarded 1963-2009 Academic Years," (last visited Jul. 26, 2011).

4 NALP – The Association for Legal Career Professionals, "Law Firm Diversity Among Associates Erodes in 2010," (last visited Jul. 26, 2011).