Although more than half of law school graduates are women, they make up only 36 percent of legal professionals, according to a 2017 report from the American Bar Association’s Commission on Women.
“The industry as a whole has a problem attracting women to the legal field and retaining them,” said Courtney Leyes, an associate and the sole woman attorney at the Memphis office of Fisher Phillips LLP, a national firm that focuses on workplace law. “It’s asking those hard questions and figuring out why women are leaving the private practice of law, and trying to address those problems.”
Although Leyes is the only woman attorney at the Memphis office, Fisher Philips has a long history of hiring women attorneys, having hired its first woman, who made partner, in 1962.
Fisher Phillips is one a growing number of law firms implementing formal initiatives and mentoring programs to help women advance in their careers and improve work-life balance.
And the firm, along with Baker Donelson and Littler Mendelson P.C., to name a few, is one of several with a Memphis presence named to Working Mother’s 2017 Best Law Firms for Women.
Fisher Phillips’ Women’s Initiative & Leadership Council (WILC) supports and hosts a variety of women-focused events and sponsors organizations whose focus is advancing the status of women in the legal community.
“One of the goals of our initiative is to make Fisher Phillips a supportive place to work for women,” said Leyes, who heads up WILC at the firm’s Memphis office. “We have a number of initiatives to make our firm more attractive to women, not only who come to work here but to stay.”
WILC’s goals include recruiting and retaining women attorneys, mentoring opportunities, work-life management, and increased leadership opportunities both internally and externally, in organizations such as bar associations.
Leyes said it’s critical that firms diligently create effective work-life balance solutions to retain women, who shoulder the brunt of caregiving responsibilities and household labor, and continue to be impacted by longstanding societal biases and gender role expectations.
“I’ve recently started to speak out about long-held biases that men have toward women,” she said.
For example, Leyes said, men are often lauded as excellent fathers for fulfilling duties women are expected to shoulder – or even chided for – such as picking their children up from school.
“Those biases are being perpetuated and it creates an unsupportive environment so women don’t want to be there,” she said.
Leyes hosted Fisher Phillips’ first Memphis WILC event in April and plans to start a quarterly women’s luncheon series in 2018 to bring local female business professionals together to expand their knowledge, share experiences and resources, exchange ideas and network.
Baker Donelson, another firm with a Memphis presence named to Working Mother’s 2017 Best Law Firms for Women, was ranked No. 43 nationally in Fortune Magazine’s 2016 50 Best Workplaces for Parents, and achieved a score of 100 on The Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index.
Nationally, women make up 36 percent of the firm’s attorneys and advisers and 26 percent of its managers.
Kristine Roberts, a business and commercial litigator and a shareholder in Baker Donelson’s Memphis office, said the firm actively works to implement supports for the “sandwich generation,” individuals who are raising children while caring for aging parents.
“And even if you don’t have children, you have to be responsible for parents, grandparents and other relatives,” Roberts said. “So, whether or not you have children, you still have to deal with work-life balance issues.”
Baker Donelson’s women’s initiative, started in 2006, is comprised of different committees, including retention and parental leave. The parental leave committee has pioneered a new policy to ensure both women and men are able to adjust to parenthood while remaining in the workforce.
“We are a client-serviced business, so trying to meet the needs of our clients and be present and responsive to their needs means our jobs can be demanding,” Roberts said. “And trying to meet your clients’ needs while also meeting your family needs and work-life balance – we see women leaving the profession at greater rates than men. It’s something we want to make sure we’re addressing.”
She said Baker Donelson offers 16 weeks of parental leave that can be taken intermittently over a 40-week period, making it easier for women to adjust to being on maternity leave and to adjust to returning to work.
The firm also offers some flexibility in work schedules, which includes allowing attorneys to work from home at times.
Roberts, like Leyes, said women in law, like their peers in other fields, continue to deal with deep-seated societal biases, including a phenomenon that’s recently been dubbed “he-peating.”
“Women have talked about the phenomenon of feeling like their opinions are expressed and nobody responds to it, then a man in the room says the same things and all of a sudden you hear, ‘That’s a great idea,’” Roberts said.
Women feel supported when they can discuss these experiences and how to approach them with women mentors, and attorneys at Baker Donelson are paired with one-on-one mentors who can offer advice about challenges from how to make yourself heard in a meeting to navigating pathways to leadership.
“We often notice we’re in a meeting or court hearing that we may be the only women in the room,” said Roberts. “There’s a need for women’s initiative-type support and mentoring.”