Most progressive business leaders are aware of diversity issues across corporate America and as a corporate lawyer closing out my first decade in practice, I can tell you that the legal profession is totally complicit. For example, the ABA reports that women comprise 50% of the law school enrollment, but only 21% of law firm partners — and those partners are only earning 80% of what their male counterparts bring home. While many companies and advocacy organizations have attempted to diagnose and offer solutions to this issue, the bottom line is that the profession and its client base suffers from the shortage of talented women who choose to continue to practice law.
Last week, Diversity Lab hosted its inaugural Women In Law Hackathon at Stanford University. The Hackathon brought together more than 50 men and women in leadership positions in the nation’s most prestigious law firms to pitch their best ideas on how to support and sustain the advancement of women in law firms. Naturally, most of the lawyers had never heard of a “hackathon” – one quipped that it sounded like an illness!
I was fortunate enough to be invited to participate in the event as a preliminary judge. This meant that I got to play Simon Cowell for the day and offer my advice and constructive criticism (a la “I don’t mean to be rude, but your performance was a bit pitchy!”) on the eve of the competition so that they could fine-tune their presentations before showtime the next morning.
At first, I was unsure how feedback would be received from a 30-something white male who no longer even worked at a law firm. But then I thought about my wife, a self-described “boss-babe” who continues to work full-time at a Big 4 accounting firm while running the show at home as the primary caregiver for our two young children. I thought about my 4-year-old daughter (an outgoing cherub who exudes confidence on the playground) and my 6-year-old son (who idolizes his mom and often mimics her voice on conference calls that she takes from our home office). After chatting for a few minutes with Diversity Labs’ founder Caren Ulrich Stacy and her colleague Lisa Kirby, it became quite clear to me that men weren’t being relegated as the “problem” here — rather, they were recruited to be part of the solution! In other words, “women’s issues” are everyone’s issues, and men must play a critical role in the advancement of women in work and society at large.
Anyhow, back to the hackathon….
The male and female participants were divided into nine teams, and each team was tasked with creating an innovative approach to closing the gender gap in the legal profession and introducing their idea in a “Shark Tank” style presentation. Teams were given six months to collaborate and develop their ideas and were encouraged to think outside the box on how to narrow the gender gap in the law. Ultimately, a panel of judges would crown one team the winner of the Hackathon, and they would be awarded prize money to direct to a relevant non-profit. Ideas ranged from a gender-focused associate mentoring program supported by clients and law firms to implementation of a software program to analyze and revise associate reviews to ensure objectivity in the firm’s compensation analysis process.
After spending the day with the teams and joining them for a reception, I learned that women leave the profession for a variety of reasons. Some of the examples I heard were that many law firms suffer from an “old boys’ club” culture where advancement for women is limited because they are not perceived as rainmakers. This misconception becomes a negative feedback loop because promising young female attorneys do not see their demographic represented at the highest levels. Others suggested that the traditional law firm associate advancement model does not adequately address family planning.
While the gender issue pervades the profession, I have also found that lawyers inherently understand fairness and equal opportunity – probably because we have been at the forefront of all civil rights movements in this country. Ultimately, I came away from the Women in Law Hackathon energized from the creativity, competitiveness, and polish that each team demonstrated in their pitches. Their laudable efforts give us the opportunity to turn inward and act within our own profession to take a fresh approach to empowering women in the law. #HeforShe #hacktheglassceiling