Top Three Takeaways from DirectWomen’s St. Louis Event

By Allison Spence

DirectWomenPic1The Missouri Joint Commission on Women in the Profession’s DirectWomen events in St. Louis has fortuitous timing this week. They coincided with Equal Pay Day, a day that symbolizes how long a woman must work into the new year before her previous year’s salary equals that of a man in the same position.

The persistent earnings gap between male and female attorneys was a central topic of discussion over the two days of the DirectWomen event in St. Louis, but the panelists touched on many critical issues for women attorneys: rainmaking, implicit bias, origination credit and the path to corporate board membership. Check out our live tweets from all the programming for a day-by-day recap of the event.

Led by three esteemed guest panelists, Bobbi Liebenberg, Chair of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession, Stephanie Scharf, Past President of the National Association of Women Lawyers, and Pat Gillette, a member of the ABA Gender Equity Task Force, here are some of the major themes emphasized during the week’s programming.

Sponsor is the New Mentor
DirectWomenPic2 According to Liebenberg, women attorneys are “over-mentored and under-sponsored.” What’s the difference? A mentor offers guidance and advice, but a sponsor does much more than that. 

 “A mentor pounds the table for you,” Scharf said, thumping her fist on a table for emphasis. 

“A sponsor is somebody who advocates for you when you’re not in the room,” Liebenberg added.

How do you find a sponsor? 

“You have to make yourself indispensable,” Scharf said. “Act in ways that give the sponsor the opportunity to advocate for you.”

Scharf said she connected with one of her first sponsors, a powerful male attorney, by asking him to join her on a client pitch. They were not close friends, she said, but she worked hard for him and became “one of his guys.” 

“From then on, I was under his umbrella,” she said. “I had his halo effect.”

Take sponsorship seriously, Scharf said. 

“Cultivate people who are powerful,” she said. “Guys are lining up to do that.”

Critical Mass is Key
DirectWomenPic3Too often, Gillette said, law firms rely on the “two-seater” rule:  If they have at least two women at the table, then they’ve filled the unspoken “quota.”

Actually, as outlined in the landmark ABA publication “Closing the Gap: A Road Map for Achieving Gender Pay Equity in Partner Compensation,” real change is difficult to achieve without at least a critical mass of three women.

“Having three or more women on a board can create a tipping point where women are no longer seen as outsiders and are able to influence the content and process of board discussions more substantially, with positive effects on corporate governance,” according to the report.

For law firms, that means striving to achieve critical mass on management committees and, importantly, compensation committees, where implicit bias still affects how women attorneys are perceived and evaluated. 

For example, said, Liebenberg, “Implicit bias can result in an assertive woman being viewed negatively, while a male attorney displaying the same traits is viewed as a ‘go-getter.’” 

Women with children also face some of the strongest effects of implicit bias, she said, when male partners try to “protect” mothers by passing them over for travel or time-consuming projects. 

“It’s like, ‘Come on, I had a baby, not a lobotomy,’” Liebenberg said.

Clients Hold the Power of the Purse
As the legal industry struggles with a persistent pay disparity between men and women attorneys, corporate clients can make a direct impact on the problem. It’s all laid out in an excellent how-to guide from the ABA Presidential Task Force on Gender Equity and the Commission on Women in the Profession, “Power of the Purse: How General Counsel Can Impact Pay Equity for Women Lawyers.”

At an April 8 panel at Washington University School of Law, several executives and general counsel talked about how diversity and pay equity are becoming part of their standard requirements for outside counsel. Missouri Bar President-Elect Reuben Shelton, senior counsel of litigation at Monsanto, said he now expects outside legal providers to place a priority on diversity. 

“Outside counsel need to fit into our culture,” he said. “Diversity is one of the first questions we ask.”

Some of the general counsel panelists expressed hesitation about asking law firms direct questions about origination credit or the gender makeup of a legal team. But as Gillette stressed, there are meaningful actions a general counsel could take. For example, a general counsel could send a letter to a managing partner noting the role a female partner played in the engagement. Gillette also cited one instance where a news article listed the members of a firm’s management committee. After a client wrote a short note to the managing partner noting the all-male lineup, two women were soon appointed to the committee.

“Sometimes all it takes it for a general counsel to say, ‘I noticed,’” Gillette said. “Many firms will jump into action after that.”

Allison Spence is the Communications Manager at Thompson Coburn LLP. A former award-winning journalist, she leads internal and external communications, including social media strategy, for a 375-attorney firm.