TBA Law Blog

Posted by: Karen Neal & Cynthia Sellers on Jan 28, 2009

Journal Issue Date: Feb 2009

By Karen Neal and Cynthia Sellers

The Issue

Over the past 20 years, law schools, not renowned for embracing radical change (flashback to the feared Socratic Method " still a thriving instrument of terror) have consistently delivered graduating classes of eager young men and women in approximately equal numbers.1

Yet, since 1993 when the National Association of Law Placement Inc. (NALP) begin compiling statistics on the percentage of women and other minorities in the private practice of law, the growth of the number of women partners in large law firms is slight, from 12.27 percent to 18.74 percent.2 Another recent study found that in 2007, men held 84 percent of equity partnerships, 92 percent of managing partner positions and 85 percent of positions on firm governing committees.3

Why is there such a disparity in the ownership and leadership of law firms given the 20+ year history of a strong and full pipeline of talent? Men and women are hired by law firms in relatively equal numbers, but the attrition of women associates is dramatic. Why this draconian loss of women associates and future leaders in the private practice of law? Why should the guys running the show care? Why should every law firm examine the causes of this loss of human capital and work toward implementing solutions? Here are a few reasons:

  1. Self Interest: Perhaps surprisingly, many lawyers don't just practice law for love of the profession, but also to make staggering student loan payments followed by even more staggering mortgage payments. Training and development of associates is expensive. Associate salaries continue to rise, and it takes several years for an associate to become profitable to the firm. Loss of a valuable experienced associate or partner is a loss of a sunk cost. Client relationships are impaired, as well as the efficiency of the practice group of which that lawyer is a part. Opportunities may be lost. Additional lawyer time is lost to training or hiring replacements. Morale is negatively impacted.
  2. Client Demand: Our clients are more diverse. Many women associates flee to existing firm clients to serve as or work in the offices of the General Counsel, or move on to government service. Having been in private practice, these women know they can get outstanding legal services from other women and want to see women assigned to and heading client teams. For law firms, it's a double bind: the more female attorneys desert them for in-house positions, the more those in-house legal departments are populated with female decision-makers " who in turn will be all the more responsive to firms that have promoted women lawyers. Many Fortune 500 companies are signatories to the "Call to Action," which states that these signatory companies base retention of their outside counsel in part on the amount of meaningful diversity in those firms.4 What full-service law firm doesn't lust for a few Fortune 500 companies?
  3. Better Work Product: We are learning from several recent studies that projects worked on by groups composed of diverse people result in a better work product and more creative solutions.5 Law firms want creative legal strategies and solutions for their clients and for themselves. Navigating the 21st-century legal landscape is not easy. Competition for business is and will remain intense. Law firms must be nimble and strategic to survive.
  4. Business Development: See number 2 above. Just as the "good ole' boy" network results in business opportunities, as more and more women and other minorities continue to gain positions of power and influence in business, opportunities may be lost if law firms don't reflect a similar diversity.
  5. Regulatory and Judicial Composition: Many of us work in areas representing clients that are regulated by the state and federal government. Many of those agency heads and agency lawyers are female and many are former disaffected lawyers from private practice. Litigators will note that three of the five Tennessee Supreme Court justices are women. Juries come in all gender and racial combinations and, if it's a question of credibility and sympathy, common sense tells us to deploy litigators who look a little more like the fact-finders than the guy across the aisle.

What Do Women Want in Private Practice?

Women want the same opportunities as their male counterparts. Women want to learn the fundamental skill sets of their chosen areas of practice and grow to excel. Women want the benefits that result from a strong and influential mentor. Women want to learn business development skills for the benefit of themselves and their firms. Women want to be included on client pitches, client teams and complex litigation matters. Women want to head client teams, be the first chair lawyer, be the rainmaker, manage the practice group and manage the firm. Many women leave private practice because they don't find these opportunities.

Action Plan

Like the beginning of any good 12-step program, look around and own the problem. Hire a consultant to work with the firm in performing a diversity assessment. Listen carefully to what the consultant reports about the firm culture, about how client teams are created, about how work is assigned, about how future leaders are identified and mentored, and about how business and client relationships are handed down.

Establish the commitment of firm leadership " there is no substitution. Recognize the need for diversity in all levels of the firm, identify diversity as a strategic goal and formalize a diversity plan. Be active in the implementation and hold firm management accountable for that implementation. Too many diversity efforts are expected to be driven from the bottom up by the very lawyers affected without visible and meaningful commitment from firm leaders.

Create a diversity committee " but create a committee with credibility. It must include law firm leaders, as well as female and other diverse attorneys who can bring a critical level of sensitivity and perception to the committee's role. Be meaningfully involved and visible.

Create a formal diversity plan. Like a business plan, a diversity plan sets specific goals and expectations, in recruiting, staffing of projects, retention, business development and filling firm leadership positions, as well as guidelines for conducting internal audits and metrics of the ongoing results.

Provide training to assist in identifying and overcoming unintended and historic bias. Start with leadership. Don't ignore or condone insensitive, hurtful or disrespectful comments, even if they are funny. Learn what those things are and don't go there. Lawyers at whom they are directed may believe these comments are representative of the firm's attitudes about women or other diverse groups, when likely they are only the prejudices of the speaker.

Be good managers. Be thoughtful about the competing demands lawyers have with their personal and professional lives and be deliberate and creative in crafting ways to help them balance those demands. Lawyers are wives, mothers, fathers, caretakers, artists, musicians and often just plain tired. Consider policies recognizing alternative work schedules that permit reduced hours and compensation. Assure that associates on an alternative work schedule can still be on track to membership in the firm, resulting in the firm being able to retain and recruit outstanding associates and members who might otherwise leave, torn by their choices. Provide sick-child day care, a mother's room for nursing mothers, meals for lawyers working late or to take home to the starving hordes. Support diverse affinity groups that focus on mentoring, mutual support and programming, primarily in the area of business development.

Law firms cannot afford to write-off a significant portion of their human capital and remain competitive in the 21st century. It is costly, it is foolish, and it is bad business on every level. Retention of women in the private practice of law is attainable, but will require change. Let's do it.


1. American Bar Association, "First Year and Total J.D. Enrollment by Gender 1947-2005" (2008).
2. The National Association for Law Placement, "Law Firm Diversity Demographics Slow to Change " Minority Women Remain Particularly Scarce in Law Firm Partnership Ranks." Oct. 10, 2008, Revised Dec. 10, 2008, www.nalp.org.
3. National Association of Women Lawyers ® and The NAWL Foundation, ® "Report of the Third Annual National Survey on Retention and Promotion of Women in Law Firms." November 2008.
4. www.clocalltoaction.com.
5. "On Racial Diversity and Group Decision Making: Identifying Multiple Effects of Racial Composition on Jury Deliberations," Samuel R. Sommers, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 90, pp. 597-612, 2006.

KAREN NEAL KAREN NEAL is a partner at Bass, Berry & Sims. The firm was named as one of the 50 Best Law Firms for Women by Working Mother magazine in 2008, for, among other initiatives, a policy recognizing alternative work schedules permitting reduced hours and compensation, and the firm’s support of a successful Female Mentor Group, which hosts a popular annual “Salute to Women Executives.” Neal is the chair of the firm’s Diversity Committee and past member of the firm’s Executive Committee. She has been listed in The Best Lawyers in America® since 2003, has been named in the Nashville Business Journal’s “Best of the Bar,” and is a fellow of the Nashville Bar Foundation.




CYNTHIA SELLERS CYNTHIA SELLERS is a partner at Bass, Berry & Sims. The firm was named as one of the 50 Best Law Firms for Women by Working Mother magazine in 2008, for, among other initiatives, a policy recognizing alternative work schedules permitting reduced hours and compensation, and the firm’s support of a successful Female Mentor Group, which hosts a popular annual “Salute to Women Executives.” Sellers is the firm’s Business Development and Client Relations partner and is the chair of the Business Development Committee. She is a fellow of the Nashville Bar Foundation and is listed in The Best Lawyers in America®, Chambers USA and the Nashville Business Journal’s “Best of the Bar.”