Building a Culture of Gender Equity: Insights from a Majority-Women-Owned Firm

Female lawyer smiling at camera during meeting

I am the managing shareholder of a 50+ attorney business law firm with 29 equity partners: 16 women and 13 men. Stokes Lawrence was founded 40 years ago by two men. While we did not consciously seek to be majority women owned, we have always attracted and been successful retaining women lawyers. In fact, our firm was recently admitted to the National Association of Women and Minority Owned Law Firms.

I am frequently asked how we have accomplished this, especially given the disappointing statistics about women in positions of equity ownership and leadership in our profession. The short answer is that we have adopted policies that encourage all of our attorneys to flourish and, more importantly, we have a culture that reinforces the expectation that women and men are equally capable of success.

I have been the managing shareholder of Stokes Lawrence for 20 years. For many of those two decades, our firm’s three-person Executive Committee has consisted of at least two women. Several of our practice groups are led by women. While having women in positions of leadership does not by itself guarantee gender equity, success begets success. Part of the reason our firm attracts and retains women at rates that are unusual in our profession is our long history of women holding visible, senior positions of leadership. Firms without a current critical mass of senior women lawyers may not be able to immediately place women in positions of senior leadership, but developing future women leaders should be a visible and high-priority focus for the current senior male leaders of any firm wishing to create a durable improvement in its gender balance.

Adopting policies that level the playing field for women and men and that encourage all attorneys to thrive is essential. But policies by themselves are inadequate. The culture of the firm—the behaviors that are expected as well as those that are not tolerated—must be consistent with the firm’s stated goals and its policies. If not, even the most progressive policies adopted with the best of intentions will ring hollow. Described below are examples of two practices we have adopted along with the cultural norms that support them.

Policy #1: Family Leave

Our family leave policy is the same for every member of the firm—lawyers, staff, owners, and makes no distinction between moms and dads. Everyone who is welcoming a child (via birth or adoption) receives 12 weeks of paid leave during the first year after birth or adoption.

On a case-by-case basis, we consider unpaid extensions of family leave, phased-in part time return to work, and flexible use of the 12 weeks of leave. All special arrangements are worked out between the employee, the employee’s team and firm leadership, balancing the needs of the employee’s family with the needs of the firm and our clients.

An important cultural aspect of our policy is that taking family leave is not optional. From time to time, most typically with fathers, I need to meet with the lawyer and encourage that they create a plan for how they will take their leave. Sometimes I need to reassure them they will not be viewed as less committed to their career or the firm when they take leave. The reason we insist that dads as well as moms take family leave is not only to benefit the dads and their families, but also to create parity between men and women. Having a child is not just a “mom” event, it is a family event. When all new parents are treated equally, the impact on the firm is largely the same whether the employee is male or female.

Policy #2: Business Planning

Each of our lawyers, from the most junior associate to the most senior partner, prepares an annual business plan. The plan contains the lawyer’s long-term vision for their practice, goals for the upcoming year in a number of areas—personal production, skills development, business development, community and pro bono involvement, mentoring plans, firm and department commitments, etc.—and specific steps the lawyer commits to taking to achieve their goals. As part of this process, I meet individually with each lawyer along with at least one other member of our firm’s Executive Committee (for partners) or a member of our Associate Development Committee and a supervising lawyer (for associates).

Our business planning process is important culturally. We believe each of our lawyers is capable of, and responsible for, creating a satisfying career that will contribute to the long-term success of the firm. The firm works with each lawyer to decide what support will help them achieve their goals. In addition to mentoring from more senior lawyers, support may range from skills-development programs to leadership coaching to technology solutions or anything else we agree would contribute to the lawyer’s growth. Our lawyers do not fit into the same mold; they have diverse goals. Once the goals are finalized, however, we expect our lawyers to follow through on their commitments.

Unlike our family leave policy, our business planning process has no obvious gender aspect. Our women lawyers tell us, however, that our approach to individual planning and development is critically important to their satisfaction. Through this process, we see each lawyer as an individual contributing to a thriving whole, with unique strengths and areas of desired growth, with their own vision and path toward success, satisfaction, and contribution. We do not want or expect our lawyers to be cookie cutter versions of each other, and we believe the firm is stronger because of this.