Women Leaders of The Am Law 100: The Law of Small Numbers

An in-depth look at the number of women serving in leadership positions at The Am Law 100.

, The American Lawyer

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Leadership

Getting younger partners involved in leadership positions is another way to ensure a degree of gender balance in leadership. "At many firms, management is very senior-based and top-down, and that [approach] tends to collect a lot of older white men," says Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner managing partner Barbara McCurdy. Her own resume is evidence of the firm's tradition of giving younger partners a voice in management. As a third-year partner in 1996, McCurdy was appointed to a special 10th seat on the compensation committee to represent young partners. Almost 15 years later, McCurdy became managing partner as she was just turning 50, at the peak of her practice. "At some firms the managing partner is floating out toward retirement. The mentality here is letting the next generation lead the firm, and that naturally creates openings for women," she says.

Similarly, Kim Koopersmith, the newly minted chairperson-elect of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, credits current chair R. Bruce McLean and his long-running focus on grooming younger partners as critical to her success as a leader. It was McLean, for instance, who gave Koopersmith some of her earliest leadership roles, including the drafting of the firmwide policy for part-time work arrangements in 2001. Six years ago, McLean informed Koopersmith that she was one of a handful of young partners that he thought could ultimately lead the firm. Over the next few years, McLean made sure that Koopersmith, as well as a few other candidates, got a variety of leadership experiences and exposure among the partners. For Koopersmith those experiences included chairing the compensation committee and her appointment as U.S. managing partner in 2008. In October the 53-year-old partner was elected as the first woman chair of the firm.

Not surprisingly, firms that have nurtured or attracted a large number of female rainmakers also boast a better balance in their leadership ranks. Some, such as Jenner & Block, have a long and storied history of women leaders. Former partner Joan Hall was elected to the firm's executive committee in 1978 and was renowned for gathering women together over lunch in the seventies and eighties to talk about business development. Today, managing partner Susan Levy says there is a sizable group of women partners with "big numbers by their names," and women are the relationship partners for three of the firm's top 10 clients. The Chicago-based firm has seven female partners on its 24-member management committee (29 percent) and two women on its eight-partner policy committee (24 percent).

But the ascendancy of female rainmakers need not take three decades. Take Shook. Over the last decade, the Kansas City, Missouri–based law firm has worked with clients such as Altria Group Inc., The Coca-Cola Company, E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company, Microsoft Corporation, and Pfizer Inc. to create a diverse team of lawyers and to provide opportunities for women to lead and cultivate business, says Shook partner and executive committee member Lucy Mason.

Mason's own relationship with Altria is a prime example. She began working for the tobacco company as a young associate under two more senior male partners. But in 1999, an in-house lawyer at Altria suggested that Mason was ready to act as second chair in the trial of an important personal injury case. And Mason, who was still an asso­ciate, shined, examining many of the trial's key witnesses.

"That trial was a make-or-break moment for me: It really pushed me [forward] in the ranks," says Mason, who is now the primary relationship partner for Altria. "The client said out loud that they had confidence in me, and it was that push that gave me legitimacy," she says. That type of client influence and support has had a significant impact on the gender balance of Shook's leadership, says Mason. Today, four women serve on the firm's 11-partner executive committee (36 percent), and women make up 32 percent of the firm's division and practice group leaders and 22 percent of its office managing partners. "The clients drive the business," she says. They've been demanding more women in leadership positions, and we've responded to that."

 

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