Considerations for Women Making Their Next Move
Lateral moves among lawyers have become so common that for those still at their first (or even second or third) law firm, the question isn't usually whether to move, but when. In 2012, 1,947 partners moved into or out of the Am Law 200 firms.1 In 2011, the number of lateral partner moves was even higher, at 3,012.2 Moreover, if the number of non-partner moves was factored in, these figures would increase significantly. When a lawyer seeks to change firms, there is, of course, always at least one reason prompting the move—conflicts of interest with the lawyer's key clients, undesirable changes in firm management or culture, dissatisfaction with compensation, etc. But while most lawyers are clear on what they're trying to run from, a lot less thought seems to be given to what they are running toward. While this is an issue for all candidates, it arguably is an even greater issue for female candidates, who often encounter challenges and concerns not shared by their male counterparts.
While many law firms have created a host of committees and initiatives to better recruit and retain women, it can be difficult to assess which firms actually have been successful in the specific areas that are of interest to individual candidates. For that reason, candidates need to view the interview process as a two-way street and learn as much as possible about a prospective new firm so they can avoid trading in one set of problems for another.
Nearly all candidates will consider the culture of a firm, primarily as evidenced by the personalities of their interviewers and by whatever anecdotal intelligence they can gather from friends, colleagues and clients familiar with the firm. Those with a portable practice will undoubtedly assess potential conflicts of interest. And, perhaps most universally, candidates will weigh the financial terms of any offer. In this article, we examine several other areas that women lawyers in particular might benefit from considering while evaluating their options.
Leadership Structure and Opportunity
When considering joining a firm, women candidates in particular may want to take a good look at office, practice-group and firm-wide leadership. Most firms voice a commitment to the promotion of women, but with women accounting for only about 15 percent of equity partners, it is not surprising that women are poorly represented in management at the vast majority of law firms: Only about 25 percent of firms have even one woman on their highest governing committee, and just 4 percent of firms have a woman serving as firm-wide managing partner.3
So, do those few firms with women in leadership stand out to candidates? According to recruiter Sandy Leibow, cofounder of The Leibow Jawin Group: "[W]hen women lateral partners are considering making a move, they view a firm more positively when they see women in management and leadership roles. Is this a major factor when they are weighing one firm against another? No. However, all things being equal, e.g., platform, culture, profitability, etc., a woman partner likes to see that there are no limitations as to what she can achieve at her new firm." This makes sense, because so few firms have women in senior management roles, you might not be able or willing to limit your search accordingly, nor is that the only factor you should consider. However, when a firm not only espouses a commitment to the retention and promotion of women, but practices it, the firm really does stand out in a significant way. Maranda Fritz, who recently joined Thompson Hine as a partner, notes that the firm—which is led by managing partner Debbie Read and whose New York office is led by Kathie Brandt—"had a culture of respect and appreciation for women in the field and what I believe are their unique contributions. For me, that, along with its commitment to the white-collar practice and its overall remarkable lateral integration, were all critical. One without the others would not have worked."
Brandt further opines that a firm's leadership may be indicative of its overall culture and values. She suggests that candidates
look at the various leadership positions and see if any of them are held by women (or minorities). In particular, do any women hold important positions where they can have an impact on a major segment of the firm such as a significant practice group or an office or the firm itself, or do they only hold positions that are typically viewed as positions to be held by women, such as head of the Women's Committee or the Diversity Committee? If women don't have leadership positions that could materially influence how the firm is run or impact the careers of the lawyers, then I would wonder what value the firm leadership places on the opinions and contributions of women.
In addition to examining the leadership ranks for women, it also may be beneficial to assess the firm's integration of lateral partners. Is this a firm where laterals move up the ranks quickly and serve a meaningful role in guiding the direction of the firm? If so, not only does that create more opportunities for any particular candidate, but it also is indicative of a firm that has an inclusive culture, and one where laterals are more likely to be fully integrated. For women in particular, who, no matter the firm, are often in the minority at partner meetings, it is crucial to join a firm that is genuinely interested in welcoming new partners with open arms.
It's important to take a good look at the firm you're considering joining to make sure you understand both its current focus and future vision. Which practice areas make up the majority of the firm's lawyers? Which areas are the most successful by revenue and by reputation? What is the firm's strategy, if any, for growth, and does that strategy encompass your area of practice? Does the firm have a well-established group in your field of expertise, or is it looking to you to pioneer a practice?
There is no one correct strategy for all firms to follow, nor are there any universal responses to these questions that would appeal equally to all candidates. The important thing is to make sure a particular firm and candidate are on the same page before the candidate joins. If you really want an opportunity for leadership, be realistic about the current makeup of the group and the likelihood of that possibility. If you are concerned about operating as a silo, make sure the firm (and, ideally, the specific office you would be joining) has others in your field of practice or is committed to bringing others on.
As Fritz explains: "I was attracted to the firm, first, because it had an established white-collar criminal practice." Because she had built up a solid white-collar litigation practice, she felt it didn't make sense to move at all unless she would be joining a platform committed to her practice area. The fact that Thompson Hine already had undertaken an initiative specifically to grow this area was very attractive to her.
It is even more important to make sure you agree with a firm's strategic focus and future plans if you are less likely to make another move. Which attorneys seem to be the most reluctant to move? Possibly female associates. According to Jennifer Kasmin, senior managing director of SJL Attorney Search: