How Big Firms Are Working to Improve the Future for Women in Law
January 10, 2017
When Daniel Rhynhart was in the early stages of his law career at Blank Rome LLP in Philadelphia, he became involved with the firm’s summer program for law students. Students would spend the summer before their last year of school working at the firm, and Rhynhart oversaw the process of hiring them once they’d graduated.
“We would hire these incredible law students -- men and women, usually in equal numbers,” he told me in a recent interview. “And we would just lose the women over time.”
Unfortunately, this trend is not new news -- nor has it become old news. While women now make up the majority of law students in the U.S., they still “hold fewer than 20 percent of partnerships at law firms and are underrepresented in the higher echelons of law, including the ranks of judges, corporate counsel, law school deans and professors,” according to The New York Times.
Rhynhart -- who’s been a business trial lawyer for 20 years, now leading the commercial litigation department at Blank Rome -- is on a mission to figure out how we can change these patterns.
“It’s a really interesting issue that I’ve been working on for a long time,” he said. “When I moved into my current leadership role, I got to see how we make people partner, and it’s been my goal to help these women who are such superstars in law school and as young associates continue on that path and become partners.”
Rhynhart admits that it wasn’t always clear to him why women who pursued law didn’t tend to stick with it at the same rates that men did. “A lot of things were invisible to me -- I sort of always thought it was about [women leaving the workforce to raise a] family,” he said.
Blank Rome’s Chairman, Alan Hoffman, has been taking steps for years to retain and promote women attorneys through flexible schedules, remote work arrangements, and appointing women practice group leaders. Blank Rome was one of the first firms in the country to hire an experienced woman attorney through Diversity Lab’s OnRamp Fellowship, a re-entry platform for women who are returning to the workforce after a career break.
After Hoffman asked Rhynhart to participate in Diversity Lab’s Women in Law Hackathon -- a collaboration with Stanford Law School and Bloomberg Law to try to help advance women in the legal profession – Rhynhart began reading up on the issue to try to get a better understanding of what was happening.
Rhynhart said he learned a lot about the issues that women face at big law firms -- “problems that are largely invisible to men,” he said, “ranging from the lack of women mentors to the challenges of connecting with clients, many of whom are powerful businessmen. Women don’t necessarily have the same kind of built-in ease of saying ‘let’s go out for a beer’ or to a sporting event with a client.
“Even the hallway fantasy football league is all men,” he continued. “Things I never even thought about, all the way down to these issues of personality differences — women might be more reticent than men to speak up in a meeting, even if they know the answer.” His goal, he says, is to upset these workplace dynamics so that female talent is better retained.
The Women in Law Hackathon took place this past June. Big law firms across the country were invited to send a leader to participate in brainstorming how to solve the historic problem of gender inequity in the legal profession. The ideas were presented in a Shark Tank-style pitch competition. Each team was made up of several leaders from law firms, and there was one law student on each team. In addition, the event featured women who work as career advisors for women in law, many of whom are former lawyers. They spoke about their histories and helped to coach the teams.
“It was just the most powerful and passionate group of women at this hackathon, all committed to fixing this problem,” Rhynhart said. There was also one or two men on each team, so that law firm leaders who might otherwise view this as a “women’s issue” would get involved in finding a solution. Ideas were presented, summarized, listed, and offered by Diversity Lab for firms to adopt.
One team’s pitch, Rhynhart explained, was the legal industry’s equivalent of the NFL’s Rooney Rule. The team members suggested that for any job opening, client pitch or speaking opportunity at a big firm, a woman must be considered. It sounds simple, but as Rhynhart puts it, “It’s very easy for a bunch of men to forget that it would be important to have a woman at this pitch…[the ideas suggested at the Hackathon] could change the way people do things.”
He added that there are business reasons for law firms to want to retain more women at high level positions. “The clients want to see change [in this direction] as well,” he explained.
“These women are incredible,” Rhynhart said. “We’re doing ourselves a disservice if we’re losing them.”