News & Updates
The following article, written by Greene Espel attorney Sybil Dunlop, originally appeared in Minnesota Women Lawyers' With Equal Right (Volume XXXVI, Issue III). Reprinted with permission.
Creating Good Workplaces for Women in Law
By: Sybil Dunlop
At least once a year, a friend or colleague will email me an article detailing grim new research regarding women lawyers’ career prospects. Most recently, the National Association of Women Lawyers survey1 revealed the percentage of women associates is declining as their pay lags behind their male peers’. At the nation’s largest firms, women represent only 15% of equity partners—a percentage that hasn’t budged in 20 years. Even those women who reach the top face issues: the majority of large firms have, at most, two women members on their highest governing committee, and only 16% of rainmakers are women.
When journalists and academics consider the difficulties that women face in law firms that lead to these statistics, they variously blame a lack of opportunity for young female associates to prove themselves, work/life balance problems inherent to law firm life, and a lack of mentors for female attorneys.2
These studies are enough to make an ambitious female attorney feel a little low.
I regain a sense of optimism, however, when I look around my own law firm. I’m an attorney at Greene Espel, a boutique litigation firm in downtown Minneapolis. Founded in 1993, the firm does not make hierarchical distinctions among attorneys. In other words, there is no management, executive, or compensation committee; the firm is governed by consensus and by all attorneys, partners and non-partners alike, from the most senior to the most junior among us. Every attorney participates in the firm’s management, attending attorney meetings and serving on one or more of the firm’s committees, which provide recommendations for the consideration of the attorney members as a whole. Seven of Greene Espel’s 18 attorneys are women and serve as leaders within the firm, chairing the firm’s marketing, practice & training, personnel, and community committees.
This unique structure helps our female attorneys, particularly younger attorneys, avoid some of the structural stumbling blocks that affect women at more conventional law firms. Not only do all attorneys participate in firm management, serve on internal committees, and engage in decision-making; at the end of the year, every attorney also provides input and votes on his or her colleagues’ compensation. When compensation is decided in a black box, women may feel particularly vulnerable. Here, everyone knows where they stand and need not wonder whether colleagues are disproportionally compensated.
Moreover, since its earliest days, the firm has been peopled with parents. Senior partners Cliff Greene, Larry Espel, John Baker, and Andy Luger began their Greene Espel careers with children who have now grown into adults. Jeanette Bazis had her two children shortly after joining the firm. And today, several of the firm’s attorneys have small children at home. Because parenting is an experience shared by many, the firm respects family and community commitments—for both women and men. As a former Greene Espel partner, Justice John Simonett once said: “A narrow mind and a pinched heart make for a poor lawyer. Although law is absorbing and demanding, the good lawyer understands the importance of family and friends and time for relaxation, of time for poetry and poker.” My colleague, Beth Krueger, agrees: “Greene Espel provides excellent client service, while simultaneously recognizing the importance of poetry and poker. We work very hard, but are careful to avoid the burn-out that causes so many to flee from private law firm careers.”
Indeed, the firm has a history of working with its attorneys to craft flexible or part-time schedules for those looking to spend more time at home for some part of their career. But even for those who do not modify their schedules, Greene Espel’s small size gives its attorneys the opportunity to build relationships with one another’s families. As Kate Hibbard explains, “Shortly after our firm Halloween party, my toddler asked to go to work with me, not because he wanted to be with me, but because he wanted to ‘play with Cliff and Larry.’ I am grateful that my son knows that, when I am away from him, I am with people who care about him and our family.” Firm members also recognize that, at times, family emergencies may need immediate attention, and individuals are willing to step up at a moment’s notice to assist their colleagues through those times.
Addressing the issue of female mentorship, my colleague Peggy Kubicz Hall, who joined the firm after 20 years as 3M’s assistant general counsel, is optimistic. “Now, more than ever, women recognize the need to mentor other women,” Kubicz Hall remarks. The firm encourages mentoring through its review process. Once a year Greene Espel’s attorneys discuss, as a group, each attorney’s plan for the coming year. This process keeps everyone apprised of junior attorneys’ goals and interests enabling senior attorneys—male and female—to identify mentoring opportunities.
Beyond my law firm’s walls, I am inspired by female colleagues’ presence and impact in the legal community. Jeanette Bazis serves on the District of Minnesota’s Federal Practice Committee, the Minnesota Civil Justice Reform Task Force, the FBA Executive Committee, the MSBA Civil Litigation Section Governing Council, and the Infinity Project Board of Directors, and has been named by her peers to the “Super Lawyer” list since 2008.
Peggy Kubicz Hall brings extensive internal-investigation experience to the firm where her new practice focuses on the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, international anti-bribery compliance programs, and antitrust issues. Peggy is joined in her antitrust practice by Beth Krueger, former chair of the Minnesota State Bar Association’s Antitrust Section. Beth defends her clients against antitrust claims, counsels clients on antitrust issues, and frequently publishes on antitrust and intellectual-property issues.
My junior colleagues, Kate Hibbard, Jenny Gassman-Pines, and Erin Sindberg Porter, all joined the firm after state appellate clerkships—experiences that make them a rich source of information for friends inside and outside our firm. Kate, Jenny, and Erin have also distinguished themselves within the community, where they serve on the University of St. Thomas School of Law Board of Directors, the Jewish Community Action Board of Directors, and the Propel for Jeremiah Project Steering Committee, respectively.
I would be remiss if I didn’t note the important role that Greene Espel’s non-attorney women play in managing, leading, and administering our work. Firm administrator Laura Broomell, CLM, is a leader in the world of legal administrators. She is a Past President of the Minnesota Chapter of the Association of Legal Administrators (ALA), she has been an ALA Regional Officer, and she is the current Chair of the ALA Certification Committee. Legal Administrative Assistants, like Caron Pjanic, have served on federal court-planning committees. The firm encourages all its professionals to attend conferences and serve on committees to advance their own careers as well as increase the skill set they bring to the firm.
All of this isn’t to say that Greene Espel is immune from the challenges faced by women in the legal field—and society at large. Law firm life will, of course, remain difficult in a society that views women as primary care givers. When difficulties arise, however, I remain optimistic that my firm’s transparent structure enables a smart and thoughtful group of people to address, discuss, and consider issues important to women. Firm member Andy Luger sums it up noting that “in considering how to build a law firm and a law practice that supports the careers and aspirations of women, you need to start by building a law firm that cares about its people.” I am delighted to work at just such a law firm.
1 National Association of Women Lawyers Sixth Annual Survey (Nov. 10, 2011).
2 Timothy L. O’Brien, Why Do So Few Women Reach the Top of Big Law Firms?, N.Y. Times (Mar. 19, 2006).