No Time For Diversity Fatigue at Women in Law Hackathon

By Deborah L. Rhode, Ernest W. McFarland Professor of Law; Lucy Ricca, Executive Director of the Center on the Legal Profession, and Anna Jaffe

Deborah L. Rhode

The facts are frustratingly familiar. In law firms, women are underrepresented at the top and overrepresented at the bottom. For more than 30 years, 50 percent of law school graduates have been women, yet only 18 percent of equity partners are women — a percentage that has barely budged over the past decade. We are tired of talking about the problem.

Yet we cannot afford diversity fatigue when it comes to solutions. That was the premise of the recent Women in Law Hackathon, created by Caren Ulrich Stacey of Diversity Lab in partnership with Stanford Law School and sponsored by Bloomberg Law. Nine teams, each made up of leading partners from around the country and one Stanford Law School student, spent six months working on ideas to close the gender gap in law firms.

On June 24, the teams came together on Stanford’s campus to pitch their ideas to each other and to a panel of prominent judges. The winning teams directed prize money donated by Bloomberg Law to the nonprofit organizations of their choice that work on advancing women in the legal profession. The proposals addressed certain common issues: women’s lack of sponsorship, lack of access to business development activities, and lack of clear metrics for advancement apart from billable hours. The winning team’s initiative addressed these issues through what it called “SMART (Solutions to Measure, Advance, and Reward Talent) Architecture.”

The proposal sought to refine traditional metrics of attorney performance into eight categories, including billable and pro bono hours, business development, diversity, professional development and client satisfaction. The goal was to force firms to rethink how attorneys add value to the firm, to assign relative weights to those contributions, and to give attorneys concrete goals and feedback about how they are performing. By making the evaluation process more objective and transparent, firms can reduce the unconscious gender bias that often skews promotion and compensation decisions.

Lucy Ricca

Other proposals that were ranked highly by the judges included initiatives focused on women’s business development and on increasing women’s opportunities to become relationship partners through centralizing succession planning. The audience also liked the idea of a modified Rooney Rule, building on the experience of the National Football League, which would encourage firms to consider at least one woman for leadership positions.

All nine proposals offered promising strategies, which Diversity Lab plans to make publicly available. What is telling, however, is what the proposals didn’t directly address — work/life balance. A white paper by Stanford students, “Advancing and Retaining Women in National Law Firms,” prepared in advance of the Hackathon, underscored the significance of this issue for advancing and retaining women lawyers.

PART-TIME STATUS UNDERUSED

The paper drew together current research in the field, which finds that the importance that law firms assign to high billable hours and constant availability disproportionately affects women lawyers. Although more than 90 percent of American law firms report policies permitting part-time work, only about 6 percent of lawyers actually use them. Many lawyers believe, with good reason, that any reduction in hours or availability would jeopardize their careers. Part-time status and time out of the workforce generally result in long-term losses in earnings as well as lower chances for partnership.

The difficulties of addressing this issue have become something of a “third rail” for law firms. In a law review study by Deborah Rhode and Lucy Ricca involving interviews with law firm managing partners and general counsel last year, the vast majority recognized the problem but acknowledged difficulty in addressing it. As one person said, “You have to be realistic. It’s a demanding profession.” Another noted that his firm presented programs on the issue but questioned whether many lawyers had time to attend them.

Anna Jaffe

This is not, of course, an issue just for women. A growing number of men are demanding better work/life balance. But because women lawyers continue to assume a disproportionate share of responsibilities in the home, they pay a disproportionate price in the profession. And until we more effectively address that issue, we will need to continue convening, complaining and, now, hacking.

This is not to minimize the value of the proposals identified at Stanford Law School. The quality of the contributions and the caliber of the participants were a testament to the progress that organizations like Diversity Lab and Bloomberg are promoting.

Equally encouraging was the participation of clients. Among those represented at the Hackathon were Microsoft Corp., Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and PepsiCo Inc., all of which are placing increasing pressure on their outside law firms to move the needle on diversity. So, too, the involvement of committed law students is a sign that we are bringing new voices to the table and enlisting future leaders of the profession to care about these issues and strategize about solutions. We need that kind of collaboration if we want firms to translate their aspirations to gender equity into policies and practices that will secure it.

Deborah Rhode is a Professor of Law and director of the Center for the Legal Profession at Stanford Law School. Lucy Ricca is executive director of the center. Anna Jaffe, a Stanford Law School Master of Laws graduate, is the lead author of a Stanford Law white paper on the status of women in the legal profession.

This op-ed was originally published by The National Law Journal on July 4, 2016.


Originally published at law.stanford.edu on July 6, 2016.