Women’s Initiatives: Driving Business for Law Firms

By Robin Madell (San Francisco)

As chief diversity officers have emphasized worldwide, creating more opportunities for women in the workplace isn’t just a feel-good proposition: it makes business sense. Many law firms are clearly noting this fact, evidenced by the increasing number of “women’s initiatives” being launched – initiatives that have a clear business focus. These initiatives are dedicated to supporting and promoting the talent and career aspirations of female attorneys in the legal industry, and also generating revenue.

“I believe that well-structured women’s initiatives are important to firms’ overall business and bottom line in that they can provide women the tools to work better in the law firm environment and to develop business more successfully,” says Kelly Turner, president of the Coalition of Women’s Initiatives in Law and Of Counsel at Locke Lord LLP. “They also can provide a built-in support network for women lawyers looking to advance within their firms and exposure to the firms’ women leaders and rainmakers.”

“Women are an ever-increasing piece of the business population,” says Yolanda Kanes, who heads up the women’s initiative at Tannenbaum Helpern Syracuse & Hirschtritt LLP (THSH) and is a partner and co-chair of the firm’s Trusts & Estates practice. “The issues regarding women remain somewhat unique, because in addition to taking on expanded business and professional responsibilities, we remain committed to maintaining the family aspect of our lives, and struggle daily to balance those responsibilities which can often cut deeply into our professional lives. Women’s initiative groups help bring the business production side of our working life into focus.”

Business Generators

Kanes explains why THSH decided to spearhead a women’s initiative in early 2012: “Women tend to network differently than their male peers,” says Kanes. “Networking, at its core, is social interaction, albeit an interaction geared for a business purpose. I thought that establishing a platform where women can come together as a group might better foster and capitalize on the strengths of those interactions in a business setting.”

While networking is inherently social, Kanes notes that the type of elbow-rubbing that the firm has in mind has a clear business purpose. When developing the initiative, Kanes felt it was important that it address two core issues. The first, called “Growth,” is to provide a forum where women can identify and collaborate on business opportunities and strategies that promote women not only as service providers, but as “business generators.”

“It’s sort of a ‘think tank’ to help us each realize our full potential not just as professionals who generate quality work, but also as active participants on the business side of our firm,” says Kanes. She adds that because studies have shown that women often lag behind men in self-promotion, having a forum where women can exchange ideas on how to better address this aspect of their professional lives is an important part of the initiative.

The second part of THSH’s initiative is the “Network” aspect, which is tied clearly to driving business. “This encompasses supporting the execution of ideas by helping individual members execute identified business growth goals,” says Kanes. “It further establishes a cohesive group platform with which to launch organized networking opportunities not only for women, but for the broader business community.”

Doing It Better

How widely and well are firms using women’s initiatives? According to Turner, whose role as president of the Coalition of Women’s Initiatives in Law focuses on Chicago-based firms, there is a wide range of how well firms are using their women’s initiatives and affinity programs: “Some are having strong success; others are not doing much with their initiatives,” says Turner.

Turner’s perspective is supported by the NAWL Foundation’s recent report on its survey on women’s initiatives, Report of a National Survey of Women’s Initiatives: The Strategy, Structure and Scope of Women’s Initiatives in Law Firms, [PDF] Nov. 2012. For example, the survey found that many U.S. firms report insufficient funding to achieve the types of goals stated by the programs. The survey also found uneven participation in women’s initiative events by both partners and associates.

“In general, I believe that most law firms could do more with their women’s initiatives,” Turner concludes.

Doing better could make a big difference to the industry. The American Bar Association’s September 2012 report, A Current Glance at Women in the Law, found that women represent only one-third (33 percent) of practicing lawyers, even though they represent more than half of graduating lawyers (52.7 percent). Business-focused women’s initiatives may offer a way to help change these statistics.

“I think women’s initiative groups are a good beginning,” says Leila Kanani, CEO and founder of Intermix Legal Group who has practiced law in DC, Atlanta, and Chicago. “At least it’s a voice to the firm management.” Turner adds that she supports the conclusions in the NAWL Foundation’s survey report, including that the effectiveness and the success of women’s initiatives should be measured and documented. “That way they can then be used to garner even further support from firms in terms of leadership involvement in and budgeting for the women’s initiatives,” says Turner.

What Leads to Success?

Success is only possible by overcoming challenges. Kanes identifies the biggest challenge for THSH’s women’s initiative as assigning the time to focus on business development. Aside from the time factor, she believes that the success of any venture often depends on developing a brand and getting the brand name out, coupled with a good product and service.

“Any individual or group that raises awareness of what the venture does and what sets them apart from the general population is an important component of growth,” says Kanes. “To that end, we view the women’s initiative as another aspect of that process. Focusing on the way women build associations and establish personal and business bonds make the initiative an effective way to reach out to other women and women’s organizations, as well as the general population.”

Turner emphasizes her belief that there’s no “one-size-fits-all” key to success for women’s initiatives, and that what leads to success will likely differ at different firms. Still, she offers the following as a general direction to aim for: “I believe that it is important to get men involved in women’s initiatives and in the overall advancement of women to leadership and management positions within firms, to make sure the women’s initiatives are actually meeting the needs of the women lawyers they are serving, and to go back to the drawing board as needed to tweak events and programs to ensure that they are effective and successful.”

How important is it for firms to launch women’s initiatives—and for women to actively participate in them? “In the short term, having a group dynamic makes it more likely that a concrete plan is formulated, allowing women to launch the business aspect of their professional lives,” says Kanes. “Having business development on the ‘to do’ list makes them accountable to themselves and to the group, hopefully in a positive way, and launches them to get involved with other groups and other women’s initiatives in an effort to foster business growth. It’s a win on all sides of the equation.”

2 Responses

  1. Avatar

    Terrific piece; the need to tie the mission of the Women’s Initiative to the firm’s strategic objectives is critical if it is to be taken seriously and funded appropriately.

    I was involved in drafting the questions for the NAWL Foundation’s National Survey of Women’s Initiatives and would add that Women’s Initiatives can serve as organizational change agents as well. They can identify and make recommendations to mitigate systemic issues that affect the advancement and retention of women.

    Women’s Initiatives should also be providing solid skill building content that will help women to navigate the workplace successfully. Holding events, even events that are well conceived and executed, are not enough to make a real difference.

  2. Avatar

    Agree Carol. Events provide networking and support. In MOMEMTUM, as in other skills building executive women’s leadership programs, we provide tools, strategies and mentoring for business women. These learnings, coupled with real world practice, combine to move the needle forward for business women.