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The glass ceiling belongs in the greenhouse

04 February 2009

Large law firms have not been good at creating an environment in which women can rise to the top and Chapman Tripp historically has been no better than most.  But in the last two years it has instituted an active programme to tackle this problem head on.

Progress has been positive to date and will accelerate as we achieve critical mass.  It is one thing to decide that the glass ceiling belongs in the greenhouse but it is quite another to actually consign it there.  This is because much of the change which has to happen is attitudinal and attitudes are often unconscious and therefore hard to shift.

The Women in Chapman Tripp Project began in June 2006 when the Board commissioned a former Chapman Tripp partner to interview Chapman Tripp’s women lawyers on their career aspirations and steps the firm might take to increase their career advancement.

The issue is of strategic importance.  Women account for more than half of our employed lawyers and are increasingly dominating the annual intake of new law graduates.  Yet even now, we still account for only 14 per cent of partners.

Of course not everyone aspires to be a partner, but figures like this point to a systemic failure and one which carries financial and social costs, not just for the women who are lost to the firm but for our clients and for the firm as a whole.  The good news is that by remedying this lose/lose we can create a win/win.

By addressing the challenge of ensuring that its women lawyers reach their full potential, Chapman Tripp can better retain top legal talent, reduce its turnover costs, differentiate itself in a competitive labour market, please its clients, increase the job satisfaction and loyalty of its staff and revitalise itself as a responsive and forward-thinking firm of the 21st century.

Further, the evidence is that gender balance in leadership roles tends to promote better decision-making.  Research in the US by Catalyst – a think tank to advance women in business – has found that businesses which recruit, retain and promote women make better and more innovative decisions, produce better products and ultimately attain better financial results than more traditional firms.

But law firm culture, developed over the last century, has assumed that employees had a spouse at home.  That no longer fits the lives of many modern workers, particularly women with children who often experience a clear mismatch in their life patterns and career structures.  The billable hour has been all-important as we strive to exceed client expectations. 

The firm was lucky at this time to establish a relationship with Mary Cranston.  Mary was the first woman to lead a large US law firm.  She was Chair/CEO of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman and, during her seven year tenure, increased to 25 per cent the number of the firm’s partners who were women – establishing a record for major law firms everywhere. 

She came to New Zealand to address our 2007 partners’ conference and received a standing ovation.  Her central message was that the available labour pool was shrinking due to declining birth rates and would shrink further when the large baby boom generation entered retirement so the competition for skills would be intense – “and it’s crystal clear that you can’t win the war for talent without winning the war for women”.

Which meant, for organisations like Chapman Tripp, making the cultural changes necessary to enable women to succeed and to have confidence that they will be given the opportunity to fully develop their career ambitions.

Mary Cranston made her argument by analogy, asking us to imagine a world in which everyone with power was under five feet three and had organised the workplace the way they wanted it.

“But let’s say tall people get tired of this and finally begin to agitate for change.  After some initial resistance, the short people agree that it’s unfair and they begin a good faith effort to fix things.

“The short people would first try to help the tall people act like short people and assimilate.  So they would ask them to hunch over and to cram themselves into small chairs in the conference room.

“When that didn’t solve the problem, the short people would try another tack – accommodation.  They would have some taller doors added to rooms.  They would buy a few bigger desks.  And they would create lesser career tracks for tall people who were unwilling to put up with all the rules of the small people world.

“When problems continued, the short people would identify specific jobs where tallness was an advantage and preferentially put the tall people in those jobs and then celebrate the advantages of diversity.

“And after all this, tall people would still not be succeeding like short people because the fundamental design impediments would still be in place and what is really needed is a fundamental reworking of the conditions of the workplace so that they are fair to both short and tall people.”

Chapman Tripp is not running an affirmative action policy.  We continue to promote on merit but we are consciously developing a larger view of what is meritorious and of what we expect from an outstanding lawyer, rainmaker and client manager. 

Other initiatives we have introduced, or to which we’ve expanded our commitment, include:

  • Embracing in our strategic plan the goal of being an employer of choice for women
  • Improving and promoting flexi-time options so that now they are accessed by 18 per cent of all staff, both men and women
  • Enhancing parental leave provisions
  • Providing paid parental leave days
  • Providing mobile technologies – PDA phones and computer connections – so that people can work from anywhere
  • Establishing women’s networking groups both in-house and on an industry basis with clients
  • Training young women lawyers on how to build their profile within the firm
  • Ensuring women are represented at least 50 per cent in in-house communications and as presenters to in-house seminars; and
  • Aiming to increase our percentage of female partners and ensuring that women partners are included on all significant partnership committees.

Our thanks to Brigid McArthur for writing this article.

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