We all know there's a problem. Women represent only 18 percent of partners in the nation's largest law firms, 16 percent of equity partners and fewer than 10 percent of managing partners. At every level of firm practice, including partnership, women are leaving at a much higher rate than their male counterparts.
Firms have enacted various measures to address the problem. Diversity committees were created well over a decade ago. Women's initiatives have been expanded, part-time and flex-time programs strengthened and more personnel and resources are now dedicated to diversity.
Yet little has changed. Retention and advancement of women remain problematic for many firms. So what will it take to solve the problem? First, firms need to solve the right problem.
"Work-life issues" are not the primary reason women leave firm practice. As numerous studies have shown, women leave firms because they are dissatisfied with stalled advancement and career opportunities, unsatisfying work and "unsupportive" work environments. Work-life concerns are certainly a factor in women's decisions to leave, but they are not determinative.
Can novel approaches to associate development and advancement help stop this drain of female talent?
The competency-based "level" system used to evaluate associates at Husch Blackwell Sanders, a firm with 675 attorneys throughout the Midwest and other locations, seems to suggest so.
The firm's level system was created in 2000 at Blackwell Sanders (which merged with Husch & Eppenberger last year). The system provides three levels for associate development, and each level articulates 17 skills and performance competencies. Associates are evaluated twice annually.
A level system makes the associate review and advancement process more transparent than a typical lockstep system. Partners in a level system must make an "affirmative decision about each associate's development" when deciding whether to promote an associate to the next competency level, explained Peter Sloan, a partner at the firm and the author of "From Classes to Competencies, Lockstep to Levels" (.pdf), in an interview.
In contrast, at many lockstep-based firms, associates advance (and are paid more) merely because they are getting older, not necessarily because their competencies have improved. Also, the partnership seldom has to make any substantive decisions about an associate's advancement until he or she is up for partner. As a result, "many associates don't know where they stand" until partnership, Sloan added.
In Husch Blackwell's level system, an associate only receives higher pay when his or her competency level improves. In addition, associates' billable rates only increase when they are promoted to the next level. Thus, both the associate and the firm have an incentive to develop an associate's skills.
Because of this shared incentive, associate development programs, including training, mentoring and coaching, are viewed as an "investment in developing our associate talent, not an expense," said Sloan. "Increased associate competency is directly tied to increased firm revenue."
Sloan said the level system enables the firm to better retain top talent, including women and ethnic minorities. Before the system, attrition averaged about 30 percent annually. But by 2004, attrition had dropped to 14 percent, and it has remained relatively level since then. In fact, the percentage of women who left the firm in 2005 and 2006 was lower than their male peers, with only 10 percent of women leaving each year.
In addition, under the level system, several associates have been promoted to partner earlier than they would have been under lockstep. Half of those fast-tracked promotions were women.
Howrey also has a competency-based system that was rolled out in 2005. The Howrey system details four levels of proficiency, from novice to expert level, for each of its 16 competencies.
The firm's competency system has been integrated into firm culture and processes, and its training, pro bono and evaluation programs, as well as assignments, are tailored to competency levels.
To further enhance its competency system, Howrey recently increased the frequency of associate evaluations to twice a year and rolled out a "supervising partner" program where each associate is given a partner who coaches the associate on how to set his or her developmental goals and identify assignments and opportunities that will help improve his or her competencies.
The supervising partner program has helped reinforce the goals of the firm's competency system.
"Associates realize we are invested in their growth, and they feel empowered to take control over their career," said Karen Lockwood, a partner at the firm and co-chair of its Women's Leadership Initiative.
In 2009, Howrey will switch to a merit-based compensation system that will reward associates as they progress to higher competency levels.
Howrey's competency program seeks to "individualize the associate experience, in terms of progression, pace to partnership and compensation," said Eileen Billinson, Howrey's chief associate career management officer.
"Flexibility is built into the system," she added, "so if an attorney needs to scale back because of family responsibilities, he or she still has access to the same career resources and opportunities."
THE NEXT GENERATION
Deloitte & Touche USA has long been a leader in its talent management and women's initiative programming. It eliminated its gender gap in attrition years ago and, over the past two decades, has seen a significant increase in its percentage of women partners.
The firm already had robust career development and evaluation systems and flexible work arrangement programs when it decided to launch its new talent management program Mass Career Customization in 2005.
Mass Career Customization formalizes the notion of individuality in career development and pacing, recognizing that employees may want to "ramp up" or "ramp down" at different times during their careers.
Under the system, each employee customizes his or her career by selecting, in consultation with his or her managers, options in four "career dimensions:" pace, workload, location/schedule and role. For example, under MCC, an employee may pursue an accelerated pace with a full workload early in his or her career and, later, take a reduced schedule or limit travel ("location" under the system), when he or she has young children.
MCC is incorporated into the firm's comprehensive evaluation process. Evaluations include in-depth discussion of employee past performance, the employee's specific skills and performance goals for the next year and whether those goals are consistent with practice group needs. During the evaluation, each employee also determines their MCC profile.
MCC further enhances the "amount of information" provided through evaluations and provides "transparency about employee choices and tradeoffs" along its four career dimensions, explained Anne Weisberg, senior adviser of Deloitte's Women's Initiative and co-author of "Mass Career Customization."
MCC did not open the floodgates for reduced-hour requests. To the contrary, 91 percent of Deloitte's employees in the MCC program did not want to change their career path, and the firm received twice as many requests to ramp up than ramp down.
"It's the option value which is incredibly important," explained Weisberg. "Employees want to know they have the ability to customize their career as their professional and personal needs change."
None of these programs is a quick fix for diversity problems. Each program requires a fundamental change in how business is done, a clarity regarding performance expectations and criteria for advancement, a shared responsibility on the part of the firm and the associate to improve the associate's skills and competencies and an understanding that attorneys may choose different paths.
But the benefits are clear: increased attorney engagement, satisfaction and performance. Aren't those in everyone's best interest?
Melissa McClenaghan Martin, a former practicing attorney, is president of Career Women's Initiative, which provides diversity consulting and professional development training to law firms. She can be reached at email@example.com.