How to keep women working

Concerned that inflexible career tracks are sidelining women, particularly in law, several San Francisco industry and academic experts have begun lobbying for changes to the way the corporate ladder is climbed.

Not enough women, they say, are having experiences like Heather Leal’s. A 1996 law school grad, Leal took 15 months off after making partner at Heller Ehrman LLP in San Francisco to have her first child.

Unsure if she could return to a full-time position while mothering a toddler, she recently approached the firm about whether she could work part time temporarily, with important case work and a prorated salary that keeps pace with her status as partner and years of service.

“They responded by being extremely accommodating,” Leal said. “I’m on a 60 percent schedule. I work two days a week in the office, and whenever possible, one day a week from home.”

Arrangements like that, Heller Ehrman partner Patricia Gillette said, could help keep women in the field of law. Gillette co-authored a study, The Opt-In Project, released last week, that she hopes will have wide application in law and other fields for working women and members of youngergenerations, whose unwillingness to work 60-plus-hour weeks can drive high — and expensive — staff turnover.

Enrollment of women in law school, once at nearly 50 percent of the student population, has declined annually since 2001 to 47.5 percent. Meanwhile, in law firms, only 17.3 of partners are women, according to a 2005 study of the National Association for Law Placement.

“[The] accounting [industry] has been the clear leader in working very hard on these issues,” Hastings College of Law professor Joan Williams said. “It’s because they do the numbers and realized if you don’t deal with work-life issues effectively, you’re going to churn and burn women at a high rate of speed.”

She estimated corporate losses due to turnover of high-paid women at hundreds of thousands of dollars per employee, but said lower-paid industries also lose money when they offer women only the options of remaining on a fast track, taking stigmatized part-time work or quitting outright.

Gillette’s study was developed through a year’s worth of forums with more than 900 participants nationwide. Its ideas for law firms include changing from a billable-hours system to project-based payment, flexible workdays, an advancement structure that allows for breaks in a career and change in management thinking.

For more information on the project, see http://www.hellerehrman.com/en/optin/intro.html.

Women in law by the numbers

» 30.2 percent: U.S. lawyers who are women

» 41.1 percent: Law firm associates who are women

» 17.3 percent: Law firm partners who are women

» 49 percent: Law school students who were women, spring 2001

» 47.5 percent: Law schoolstudents who were women, spring 2006

» 38 percent: U.S. Supreme Court Clerks who were women over the last five years

» 19 percent: U.S. Supreme Court Clerks who were women, 2006 to 2007

» 16.6 percent: General counsels of Fortune 500 companies who are women

» 15.7 percent: General counsels of Fortune 100 companies who are women

– Source: The Opt-In Project Report, citing studies from the American Bar Association, the National Association for Law Placement, the New York Times and the Minority Corporate Counsel Association

The cost of losing an associate

» Salary: $165,000

» Recruiting investment: $65,000

» Training investment: $70,000

» Total: $295,000 per associate, not counting client concerns, lost profitability and recruiting and training a new hire.

– Source: Law Practice Today, August 2006

kwilliamson@examiner.com


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