By Stacy L. Douglas, Partner, Los Angeles, Wood Smith Henning & Berman LLP
The low percentage of women partners at American law firms is a much-discussed topic. Recent surveys conducted by The National Association of Women Lawyers and the National Law Journal report the percentage of women partners in the country’s largest law firms has not changed over the past decade, with only a 2.3 percent improvement since 2003.
Many reasons have been suggested for this lack of progress, and in response, the majority of larger firms have instituted high-profile mentor programs, women’s initiatives, and leadership academies to address the problem. And yet the numbers remain basically unchanged.
But there are some exceptions. At our firm, 41 percent of the partners are women, providing a welcome contrast to an otherwise bleak scenario. As a partner at the firm, I’m often asked how we accomplished this, and I can point to a variety of factors. Here are a few:
As noted by a founding partner, Stephen Henning, the firm began in 1997 with a strong desire to do things differently and not reproduce the limiting models of the past. And a major priority was recruiting and promoting women to partnership. It wasn’t just talk: the first two outside attorneys to be made partner were women—one of whom was seven months pregnant at the time.
One of these early partners, Victoria Ersoff, became head of recruiting, a key factor in bringing in additional women. Ersoff was able to reassure potential women associates who already had children or who were planning to start families that it simply made no difference to the firm or to their own career prospects.
We also recognized that new technologies would bring great benefits to both attorneys and clients. Wood Smith was one of the first firms to purchase Blackberries for both partners and associates and to set up a Citrix network for offsite work. This allowed mothers (and fathers) the flexibility to work from home or to leave the office while still remaining available to clients and coworkers.
Finally, recruiting partner Ersoff—who wanted to be a lawyer since she was a young child— makes a strong effort to identify both women (and men) who have a similar passion to practice law, and who see their job as more than a paycheck.