More women means more success

Clearly stating the economic reasons for diversity at the management level

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Credit: Jessica Scranton Professor Scott Westfahl ’88

The recent Internet phenomenon of quite strenuous disagreement over the color of a dress illustrates the challenge of separating perception from reality. Perspectives can differ widely, and people fiercely defend their perspective as truth. “That dress is blue!” “Are you kidding me?! It’s WHITE*!” With such attachment to our own perspectives, it becomes difficult to entertain multiple explanations or find common ground.

Science instructs that how people perceive the background and context determines how they see the color of the dress. Similarly, when talking about an issue like the advancement of women in the legal profession, widely varying perspectives result in frequent, sometimes heated, debates about the “truth” of women’s experience in legal practice.

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But there is an undeniable statistical truth: The equity partnerships of AmLaw 100 firms have to increase their numbers of women beyond the 15-17 percent range. It is in the unpacking of this truth – the search for root causes – where difficulties with perception versus reality quickly arise. That is especially true when firms consider whether their economic structures and systems may be at fault. Do their structures and systems create hidden roadblocks for women? Or have they been refined to create a close approximation of gender-blind meritocracy, so that the fault lies elsewhere? Your background and the context from which you view the problem certainly color your answer to those questions. Or “where you stand depends upon where you sit,” as my favorite government professor Laurence Radway, used to say.

Here is an especially tricky example: Some perceive a disadvantage arising when women lawyers disproportionately receive firm committee assignments involving recruiting or diversity, rather than compensation determination or formation of firm strategy. They believe that the systems for determining committee participation are flawed and biased against women. Yet others believe that the process for determining committee assignments is the result of carefully crafted, time-tested nomination or election procedures. Experience, respect from peers and hard work matter – not gender. In their view, any gender differentiation in outcomes is irrelevant in such a meritocracy. In the end, it becomes very difficult to untangle these kinds of arguments, because cause-and-effect analysis depends not only upon many other variables, but also upon the disruption of closely held perceptions.

So what can we do? Where is there hope for making progress?

First, the business case for diversity needs to be more clearly stated and embraced, so that any partner wishing his or her firm to be more successful will have solid reasons to engage in solution-finding. In our Harvard Law School Executive Education leadership programs, we present law firm leaders with research and data from the business world to help achieve this goal. For example, we discuss the work of Scott Page, author of The Difference, who proves mathematically that diverse teams solve difficult problems more effectively, provided two conditions exist. First, the diverse teams need a high-enough baseline of relevant experience. Second, they need to work well together to overcome the challenges presented by their diverse cognitive backgrounds, learning and working styles.

We also look to the increasing number of studies showing that the more women included on a top leadership team, the more likely the team’s success. For example, a 2012 McKinsey study of leading companies found that for companies ranking in the top quartile for executive-board diversity, returns on equity were 53 percent higher than for those in the bottom quartile. Additional studies have shown that having more female members on a team significantly enhances the collective intelligence of that team.

Most recently, McKinsey studied hundreds of organizations and concluded that companies in the top quartile of gender diversity were 15 percent more likely to have financial returns above their national industry median.

Diversity-related metrics in the legal profession are almost entirely input driven. General Counsel demand that law firms report the number of women and minority attorneys working on their matters, but then do not measure attendant improvements in legal outcomes in any meaningful way. Members of the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity are now looking at this issue closely. There is high confidence in finding direct correlation between gender diversity and improved legal outcomes, client satisfaction and law firm financial success, if for no other reason than it is hard to fathom that results achieved by top companies – i.e., our clients – would not be replicated.

As that data emerge, its power should resonate and drive creative problem solving to improve the diversity of law firm leadership teams. In turn, law firm business economic structures and systems should evolve to drive the gender-diversity-results- in-performance imperative. True believers such as former Reed Smith Chairman Greg Jordan began engineering diverse leadership representation on faith several years ago; others will be likely to follow as the business case becomes more clear.

Second, firms should pay much greater attention to unlocking the power of gender diversity. Several years ago I wrote a book entitled You Get What You Measure to help law firms create effective lawyer evaluation systems based upon a competency model that articulates what firms actually expect of their junior, mid- and senior-level associates. A critical resource for the book was the ABA Commission on Women in the

Profession’s important 2008 report, Fair Measure: Toward Effective Attorney Evaluations, Second Edition. The report includes a helpful resource detailing gender biases that often appear in or influence performance evaluations. It prompted me to ensure that important competencies, such as “listening,” were included in the model I proposed. Listening is a critical skill for any lawyer, yet many law firm competency models still don’t include it. Coincidentally or not, it happens to be a skill at which women often excel relative to their male peers. Unlocking the power of gender diversity first requires acknowledging, rewarding and promoting people based upon broader competencies that translate directly to the bottom line – but that have often been ignored or described dismissively as “soft skills” due in some measure to gender bias, I believe.

The true break-out moment can come when those competencies are fully leveraged. Relative to other professionals, lawyers are critically undertrained and underprepared to collaborate and work in teams. That undertraining starts in law school and is perpetuated in practice. With research showing that women dramatically improve team performance and thereby overall financial results, law firms will accelerate their unlocking of the power of gender diversity if they pay much greater attention to training their lawyers how to work in teams and introducing the kind of team structures and processes that accounting, consulting and engineering firms have long used to improve efficiency and client service.

“Building diverse teams is the way of the future,” noted McDonald’s Corporation General Counsel Gloria Santona at NAWL’s recent 2015 Mid-Year Meeting in Chicago. Women lawyers seeking to take advantage of this trend should invest in becoming better team leaders and collaborators. Seek out related training and find new leadership opportunities to practice what you learn.

Third, women need to be their own best advocates in this effort. Consider the experience of a woman partner we know who had been groomed for a leadership position but suddenly found herself facing a late, unexpected challenge from one of her male partners. She confided to a few male friends and her husband that if she wasn’t chosen for the role, “it wouldn’t be the end of the world.” Each of these men strongly advised her not to share that thought with anyone else at the firm. Their advice? If she wanted the position, she needed to say so, explain to others why she was qualified and display full confidence that she was the best candidate. That is certainly what most men would do, they noted. Some women counter that double standards apply and they can’t directly advocate for themselves in such a situation.

Rather, they advise, enlist other women (and male supporters) to advocate for you. “Create a conspiracy” of cross-promotion, recommended McGuire Woods’ Chicago Office Managing Partner Amy Manning at NAWL’s Mid-year Meeting. Her point: know what your fellow women attorneys do well and let others know about it, deliberately and frequently, as they do the same for you (both inside your firm and also with clients).

Either way, though, research does indicate that women are too often wary of being their own advocates. Adam Grant’s excellent book Give and Take discusses how when women are challenged to ask for a raise, they do not succeed as well as men, but when they are asked to advocate for a raise for someone about whom they care, they are equally or more successful.

Where else can we find hope? As the market for legal services emerges from the great recession, there is sharp debate around whether that market is in a paradigm shift. As my Harvard Law School colleague David Wilkins always notes, the problem with paradigm shifts is that by definition you don’t know if you’re in one until years later when someone writes the definitive book to let you know that yes, indeed, 20 years ago you were in a paradigm shift.

Paradigm shift or no, as we meet with and train law firm leaders from around the world at our Harvard Law Executive Education leadership programs, we are definitely seeing a greater openness to new ideas and frameworks, and a hunger for research- and data-driven strategies. This continues to be the case even as many firms are returning to record levels of profitability. It doesn’t feel like “business as usual” and that is likely a very good thing for moving the needle past 15-17 percent.

Scott Westfahl is the Faculty Director of HLS Executive Education and also teaches courses on problem solving, teams, networks and innovation within the law school’s J.D. curriculum. “More women means more success” appears in the latest issue of the Women Lawyers Journal (WLJ), a quarterly publication of the National Association of Women Lawyers.