Practice Development Counsel

Phyllis weiss haserot
Phyllis weiss haserot

President & Founder

212 593-1549

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Will Women's Initiative Change The Culture Of Firms?

November 2005

Following the lead of large accounting and consulting firms, a multitude of law firms have instituted women's initiatives and committees to get the women in the firm to know and support each other, build their comfort and skill in both internal and external marketing, and raise the profile of the firm and its women in the marketplace.

Here are some of the approaches and activities undertaken.

* Business generation focused activities: educational forums featuring outside speakers with clients and prospects invited ("women's executive forums"); social activities with clients, like a wine tasting or museum event; weekend spa retreats. The firms encourage women invitees to bring along other women and expand the reach.

* Firm professional development activities: training, coaching and mentoring for the women in the firm. A few firms have adopted the "mentoring circle" approach that has been used successfully by the New York Women's Bar Association in which the mentoring takes place in groups rather than having one-on-one designated mentors.

* Social activities to get the women in the firm to get to know one another better- sometimes the professionals (lawyers, CPAs,. etc.) only, sometimes including directors, managers, and professional support staff. This may take many forms including book clubs, monthly breakfasts or lunches, and gatherings of women with common interests or hobbies.

* Activities that showcase women to not only help the women currently at the firm, but also to build the firm's reputation as supportive of women.

* Charitable activities that help women in the community.

* Programs that enable flexible schedules, back-up childcare, artnership track for flex-time professionals, committees to work with human resources departments on these issues.

* In some firms the focus is on associates and younger professionals; in some it is first on young partners, and in others all levels and practice specialties participate together.

* Meetings take place in the office, or more informally, in individuals' homes or the site of the activity.

What impact do these women's initiatives and activities have on firms and their culture? How might they bring substantial change? How are and will they be received? What about the men?
The women's initiatives and committees are slowly bringing notable change and may eventually affect the entire firm culture. Here are some indications:

* Including people at all levels tends to break down the "caste system" prevalent at professional firms, facilitates comfort and enables the non-professionals to get their good ideas out in a non-intimidating setting. Age, level, and skill diversity are as important as any other type of diversity.

* When women choose the charitable activities, even if men participate, the firms are perceived in less macho, male-focused terms both inside and outside.

* Flexible arrangements are being expanded and increasingly accepted for men as well as women as necessary for retention and loyalty. Firms benefit from reduced turnover costs.

* More women in leadership positions changes the overall "temperament" of the firm and pleases the growing number of women clients and decision-makers.

* While there had been some resistance by men to separating out special activities for women, that has lessened either because they recognize the value or know it's not politically correct to oppose. To succeed, male, especially management males' support is necessary. The latter accept that it's good for the firm. In the larger accounting firms, men are now eager to participate in mentoring women and to be invited to their annual conferences. The efforts are spreading in firms like Ernst & Young to a focus on "the new workforce" and inclusiveness.

I welcome your comments to

© Phyllis Weiss Haserot, 2005. All rights reserved.