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Fulfilling the Promise of Women's Initiatives (April 2007)

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Fulfilling the Promise of Women's Initiatives

by Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D., CMC & M. J. Tocci, JD*

Issue # 48

April 2007


In recent years, women's initiatives have proliferated throughout the law firm world -- particularly in large firms. Often the initiative has a name, such as "winning women" or "leading women" suggesting lofty goals. Firm websites present these initiatives as emblematic of the firm's commitment to the advancement of its women lawyers. Events, such as retreats, spa weekends, monthly lunches, invited speakers, mentoring circles and networking events with businesswomen are listed prominently on the site.


Reading these websites brings to mind the difference in marketing parlance between features and benefits -- a distinction lawyers often miss. Features are the services a firm provides in order to help clients accomplish outcomes or qualities of these services (for example, legal services provided by the most experienced attorneys in a practice area.)

In contrast, benefits refer to what the client will gain from the service. Benefits include both pragmatic and emotional outcomes. Most clients of large law firms seek important business outcomes. They're concerned with which services help accomplish these goals, and the depth of experience of the lawyers involved is far less important to them than whether these services help their businesses to succeed and provide them with peace of mind.

As consultants to law firms, we've had a variety of experiences as "features." For example, one of us did a presentation on work/life balance to a group of women who seemed exhausted and demoralized. Most of those who attended asked questions that were really explanations why the strategies we suggested could never work at their firm. From the perspective of these women, any moment spent not working brought risks more catastrophic than living with their current level of stress. Teaching balancing skills to people in an organization with "sweatshop" norms is a futile and disheartening effort.

Another feature was a request to teach the women in a firm how to communicate effectively with clients and peers. We suggested that since conversations are dialogues, both genders could benefit from a better understanding of communication issues. We were informed that the women's initiative was intended only for the women in the firm. When a women's initiative finds itself providing programs that implicitly reinforce a belief in women's deficiencies it's gone off track.

Once we were asked to assist in facilitating conversations between the men and women attorneys in a firm. We proposed focus groups to better understand the issues, along with workshops tailored to the topics identified by the assessment. The firm's initially favorable reaction to our approach gave way to a decision that the workshops only be offered to the firm's women because "the men wouldn't come."

Recently we were invited by a large firm to submit a proposal for services that would teach the firm's women associates how to actively manage their careers within a large firm setting. From our perspective, there was one problem -- the requested feature was limited to a 60-90 minute presentation. Career management is a complex process, especially for women in large firms. Neither of us could imagine anything we could deliver in an hour that would produce substantial or sustained behavioral change.

The goals of the women's initiative at this firm are to create better opportunities for women to succeed and reach positions of leadership. Many people at the firm are deeply committed to these aspirations. Certainly the women lawyers who first began the initiative saw it as a way to overcome obstacles blocking their advancement in the firm. How could the earnest desire for such important benefits lead to the insistence on features that could never provide them?


Not surprisingly, the degree of commitment of firm managers to the advancement of the firm's women lawyers varies from one organization to another. The absence of genuine resolve tends to be transparent, as when one of us was asked to provide pro bono services to the women's initiative at a firm with substantial profits per partner. The desire for change among the women participating in the initiative was obvious. Their woeful budget dispelled any fantasy that firm managers shared these women's goals.

However, with a few notable exceptions, even when a firm has the best of intentions, all too often its women's initiative goes awry. What begins as a grassroots effort by the firm's women to produce systemic changes that would facilitate their advancement devolves into what we think of as "go fix it yourself" efforts.

It's one thing to want your firm's women to succeed. It's quite another to consider changing the way things have always been. Any successful women's initiative will have to create fundamental changes in the norms, incentives, and work structures of the firm -- since it is these factors that ultimately block the success of women. How could the people most invested in the way things have always been not be threatened by the core impetus for its women's initiative? Under many circumstances, highly focused early efforts fragment into features -- a speaker series here, a networking event there. But the central agenda gets lost.

The programs (features) created by the initiative seem to Preclude management from taking a hard look at how the professional systems and the firm culture make it difficult for women to have their talents recognized, how firm management could be more responsive and creative, and how women can better seize opportunities for career-enhancing assignments, contacts and clients. As one of us responded to a managing partner who said that the firm wanted to stem the attrition of women without changing anything at the firm: "That's an interesting idea. I've been trying to lose ten pounds without changing my eating or exercise habits, but the scale won't budge. How's it working for you?"

Of course, we all know how it's working. NAWL's recent survey of the largest firms demonstrated how little progress has been made in the advancement of women to leadership positions. Attrition numbers continue to climb.


For a women's initiative to succeed it must include:

  1. a strong, well-articulated business case for action;
  2. strong, committed support of firm leadership;
  3. active engagement of partners and associates with the initiative;
  4. management practices that are integrated and aligned with the goals of the initiative; and
  5. partners held accountable for their support of women attorneys during the course of day-to-day work interactions.

Although originators of most women's initiatives know this, they are too often side-tracked into features, and conversations about institutional change never occur. The firm's women may learn to be more assertive, they may network more effectively, but the obstacles to success continue to feel overwhelming, leading too many talented women to leave their firms.

Despite the uniqueness of each law firm, we would argue that a successful women's initiative must contain certain core elements and be based on certain core assumptions. Significantly, these elements have been present in those firms where women's initiatives have produced benefits such as an increase in the elevation of women to significant positions of leadership.


What follows is a strategic plan for a successful women's initiative:

1. Organic Beginnings

Typically, women's initiatives are initially undertaken by a core group of women in the firm who are committed to the advancement and promotion of its women. The challenge that this pre-initiative committee must meet is to shake firm leaders out of complacency, demonstrate the need for change and articulate the initiative's goals.

Since this is the beginning of a change process, the more this initial group of women understands about how change is produced, the more effective it will be. Lawyers have not been trained in the science of behavior change, and the firm's financial success requires them to devote most of their time to revenue-producing activity.

But creating change can be a time-consuming undertaking and even short-term decreases in profitability can undermine the still-fragile commitment of firm leadership.

However, two elements can increase the likelihood of success at this point. One is to count some portion of the hours devoted to the work of this committee toward billable targets. This has been successful in firms where the initial committee has recruited the support of a senior person with the power to influence management decisions. In essence, this officially honors the activities of the initiative developers as valuable to the firm without either marginalizing their efforts or draining firm resources.

Second, consultation from experts in change processes can expedite and strengthen the work of the committee. Although, this requires an investment of firm resources, the investment at this stage is relatively small. The role of the consultant is to help the committee think through issues of organizational resistance and to build internal support for the initiative.

The primary goal of the pre-initiative committee is to persuade the firm's partnership that an important problem exists and that action other than "fix the women" is required. The typical business case, which focuses on the enormous cost to the firm of attrition, has failed to convince a critical mass of firm leaders. However, a shift of emphasis to the departure of valued women partners and senior associates may be more effective in reducing complacency.

Also, since firms tend to copy one another, committee members can assemble information about the efforts of firms viewed as similar to and competitive with the initiative-creators' firm.

We have seen the goals of many women's initiatives thwarted during this early stage due to insufficient strategic planning to address complacency. One indicator that the initiative is already losing ground before it begins is when the pre-committee becomes preoccupied with creating features. At this point, concentrating on setting up a schedule of speakers or a mentoring program can seem like a fast-track to tangible results. Certainly we wish there was a silver bullet that would disintegrate a firm's obstacles to the success of its women. Unfortunately, we have yet to find one. Ultimately, the failure to address system issues and to measure the actual benefits of these programs makes them unlikely to succeed in the long-run.

2. Creation of a Firm-Supported Women's Initiative Planning Committee

If the pre-initiative team has been successful, senior management will at this point be convinced that an investment of firm resources in a women's initiative will benefit the firm. The new committee should include some members of the initial team with the addition of senior men and women who are both committed to increased diversity and influential members of the firm. Committee members must have credibility within the firm. Both management and leadership skills must be represented within the committee -- the former to guide the work of the team in its planning activities, the latter to create a vision which drives the change process.

The planning committee's task is to articulate and benchmark the ultimate goals of the initiative and to map out a strategy for accomplishing them. Effective leadership is essential in providing a vision, as well as a shared view of problems and commitment to change. Given the demands upon the time of team members, a lack of leadership will result in the erosion of commitment over time. Therefore, consultation on the composition of the committee is often critical to its success.

Initiatives often fall short here in a rush to action without assessing the environment. Assessment is crucial in helping to create and implement an effective plan. The planning committee can lead the firm to assess current perceptions of opportunities for, and obstacles to, the success of women including:

  • the need for mentoring and the level of interest in providing such guidance;
  • a clear understanding of the requirements for success;
  • access to internal networks, career enhancing assignments, contacts and clients;
  • and the availability of genuine, non-stigmatized, Flexible career paths and schedules which neither thwart success nor drive lawyers out of the firm.

The results of the assessment can guide the development of features capable of really delivering valuable skills. The assessment is also vital for establishing the need for broader culture change in the firm.

Again, given the time limitations of committee members, consultants are often helpful at this stage of the process. In addition, more than legal expertise is necessary for responding to the specific questions the committee hopes to answer.

Failures at this stage of the process can have long-term repercussions. Without effective committee leadership, the team will cease to function effectively over time. This can be easily misinterpreted as a lack of interest in or need for a women's initiative, thereby reducing support for subsequent efforts.

Furthermore, activities without specific goals and not directed by established needs are unlikely to receive an enthusiastic response from the firm's women. For example, if many of the women attorneys perceive the firm's success criteria -- 24/7 availability with no interruptions during the course of a career -- to be among the major obstacles to their advancement, and if the women's initiative provides a series of speakers on business etiquette and communication skills, the women will not perceive the initiative as either giving them a voice in the firm or meeting their perceived needs. Again, unattended events send a message to management that no change is needed.

3. Development of an Understanding of How People and Organizations Change

The frequency with which we have been asked to develop complex skill sets within the time frame of a 60-90 minute presentation suggests to us that the goals of a women's initiative would be better met if planners had a clearer understanding of how skills are developed.

Short presentations can effectively highlight issues and sometimes provide conceptual understanding, but skills are developed over time with repeated practice, feedback, coaching and support. Establishing a mentoring program without training both mentors and mentees in the core skills of their roles will undermine the effectiveness and longevity of the mentoring program. A presentation of communication, self-promotion or negotiation skills without follow-up coaching, workshops or opportunity for practice is likely to lead to failed efforts and consequent discouragement. Firm management will be left believing a fair effort has been made to help women advance and attributions of attrition to lack of commitment will be reinforced.

It is equally important for planners to understand how the initiative is embedded within the larger system of the firm and the implications of this for the success of the initiatives. For example, many women's initiatives focus on creating networking opportunities for women to develop business. These are often effective in enabling the firm's women to create relationships that offer the potential for client development. But what if the firm's policies regarding origination credit result in the credit for the business going to the senior male partner who established a relationship with a senior male at the client company many years before?

Typically, women are left at the starting gate when their male colleagues begin their race for business. Business development is a slow process, so even the most effective networking events are unlikely to produce rapid results in the form of new business. Unless firm managers' expectations have been appropriately shaped by women's initiative planners, they could easily and mistakenly use business development metrics to conclude that the initiative was unsuccessful and withdraw financial and other support.

4. Obtain Genuine, Visible Support from Senior Management

Another objective of the women's initiative planning committee is to communicate its vision to senior managers and obtain their buy-in. Too often what passes for support has very shallow roots. Management may support the initiative because it is an effective tool for attracting talent or displaying its commitment to diversity to clients who are using this as a criterion in the selection of outside counsel.

Deloitte & Touche and IBM are examples of more deeply rooted support from management. Their women's and diversity initiatives were largely driven by leadership. These leaders appreciated the reality that the initiative reflected a significant change in organizational culture and brought in consultants with expertise in organizational change to help them accomplish these goals. With the help of these advisors, management recognized that its reduced-hours policy would only work if the stigma of working a flexible schedule was reduced. As a result, all managers were required to participate in a training program addressing implicit gender bias. Surfacing pervasive assumptions about the career commitment of women with children resulted in widespread use of the new flexible schedule policy; attrition was significantly reduced and profits soared.

It is difficult to imagine a women's initiative achieving the goal of equalizing the opportunities for success regardless of gender without attention to the countless moment-to-moment interactions that reflect ongoing cultural beliefs and persist in undermining the achievements of women in law firms. What message does a women lawyer take away when she passes a partner in the hall and he averts his eyes and doesn't acknowledge her presence? How will a women of color view her prospects at the firm when she's suddenly informed at her evaluation that she is not assertive enough?

Any programs created by a women's initiative are unlikely to achieve lasting changes in opportunities for women to advance in their firms without this level of senior management support. As daunting as it may seem, change is possible. There are well-established methodologies for organizational change and for reducing implicit bias. In almost every firm there exists a core of lawyers deeply committed both to change and the economic well-being of the firm. They constitute a talent pool waiting to be tapped -- but they will need assistance. Both firms and their women lawyers will benefit from a genuinely equal playing field. Let's see who's really game to try.

*This was originally published in the Winter 2007 issue of the Women Lawyers Journal, National Association of Women Lawyers, Vol.92, No.2.

M. J. Tocci, JD is the President of Fulcrum Advisors
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Pittsburgh, PA 15206

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