Needle moves slowly on gender diversity at the top of legal circles

by Paul Gatling ([email protected]) 1,209 views 

Robyn Allmendinger, the first female managing partner — in essence the CEO — in the history of Little Rock’s Rose Law Firm.

Robyn Allmendinger was announced Feb. 7 as the first female managing partner — in essence the CEO — in the history of Little Rock’s Rose Law Firm.  No small ascension, considering Rose was founded in 1820 before Arkansas statehood (1836), it is the oldest business in the state and the oldest law firm west of the Mississippi River.

A Little Rock native and 16-year veteran of the firm, Allmendinger said she was humbled by the appointment to lead the 34-attorney firm — which established a second office last fall in downtown Fayetteville — but didn’t fully realize its significance until the days that followed.

“I had several parents reach out to tell me how excited they were to share the news with their daughters,” she recalled. “I went to school at Mount St. Mary [a private, all-girls prep school in Little Rock], and someone told me they announced it over the loudspeaker. I got an email from a lady I’d never met in Canada who reached out to congratulate me and tell me she was the first managing partner at her law firm.

“It’s been special to me, to know my gender has been so proud of the role and the significance of it.”

Just how significant? In 2016, according to the nonprofit Law School Transparency, women for the first time made up a simple majority of all law school students nationwide, with 51%.

And while many of them go on to become associates at law firms, a recent study illustrates a picture that has been largely unchanged in the history of the legal profession: Men are still in charge.

Women comprise nearly half of all attorneys nationwide at the junior and senior associate levels, yet occupy only about 25% of executive leadership positions at law firms (managing partner, management committee, etc.), according to research last year by management consultancy McKinsey & Co. That makes Allmendinger, who went to work for Rose in 2002 directly after graduating from the Bowen School of Law at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock (UALR), part of an exclusive group.

Allmendinger’s election was announced two days after another established law firm publicized a first of its own. Wright Lindsey Jennings (WLJ), established in Little Rock in 1900, issued a statement Feb. 5 with details of two personnel moves. Steve Lancaster, formerly the COO for a decade, was elected managing partner of the 68-attorney firm.

Adrienne Baker, who started her litigation practice at WLJ in 2007, was named his successor, the first woman to fill that role, essentially the firm’s second-in-command. Eighteen of WLJ’s 68 attorneys are women, about 26%, and 12 of the firm’s 51 equity partners are female, about 24%.

“Female or not, it really came down to Adrienne Baker was the right person for the job,” Lancaster said. “She’s a fantastic lawyer, and she has a strong head for business. I held the job for 10 years, so I had a good idea of what the job entails and what kind of person I wanted. She was the natural candidate.”

Like many traditionally male-dominated industries, the gender gap is ever-present, and it’s wider in law firms than in other industries. According to the McKinsey report, just 19% of equity partners are women, and women are 29% less likely than men to be promoted to partner.

The Arkansas legislature first permitted women the right to practice law in 1917, and though the national data may suggest otherwise, lawyers who spoke with Talk Business & Politics/Northwest Arkansas Business Journal say there are signs — both anecdotal and empirical — of gender progress being made in the state.

Besides Allmendinger and Baker, there are other examples of female leadership in the state’s legal community. Julie DeWoody Greathouse has been managing partner at PPGMR Law, a 14-attorney firm with offices in Little Rock and El Dorado, since 2013. The Executive committee of another Little Rock law firm, Cross Gunter Witherspoon & Galchus, is being lead by Cindy Kolb. Even on the Arkansas Supreme Court, the women outnumber the men 4-3.

In the Business Journal’s list of Largest Law Firms, national law firm Kutak Rock has more attorneys (31) in the region than any other firm. It has 13 female attorneys (42%) and among its 18 equity partners, five (28%) are female. Terry Pool, managing partner of the Northwest Arkansas market, said four attorneys in the firm’s Fayetteville and Rogers offices are eligible for partnership this year: two men and two women.

The firm’s Northwest Arkansas diversity efforts mirror the company’s overall focus. Kutak Rock has been ranked in the top 10% of law firms for gender diversity by the National Law Journal Women in Law Scorecard, 35% of its attorneys are women and 32% of its equity partners are women.

Little Rock-based Mitchell Williams is one of the state’s largest firms with 93 attorneys. About half, 46, are equity partners, and 11 of those (23%) are women. In its Rogers office, which ranks third on the Business Journal’s list of Largest Law Firms with 16 attorneys, two of the six equity partners are women — Karen Freeman and Jill Grimsley.

Freeman said balancing work and family can be a strain on all attorneys, but the weight is often a bigger burden for women. She said female attorneys are also more hesitant to propose flexible work schedules, for fear it might be a detriment to their careers. That in turn can lead to retention problems, which is an oft-heard impediment for law firms lacking in diversity.

“You have to address concerns of young mothers — or even young fathers — who want a balance,” Freeman said. “It certainly can be a demanding profession. What I have encouraged young women to do is to propose something like an alternative work arrangement, if that’s what they need. The alternative is someone we have trained and invested in walking out the door.”

Allmendinger said she expressed some reluctance after initially being offered the job. She is married with two young boys ages 9 and 12, who are involved in a number of activities, and she struggled with balancing the kind of mother she wants to be and the kind of career she wants to have. She praised the firm’s partners for helping her work through the concerns. Of Rose’s 34 lawyers, 11 (32.3%) are female. The firm has 21 members, or partners, and six (28.5%) are women.

“My initial reaction [to accept the job] was no way,” Allmendinger disclosed. “Women are scared a lot of times to ask for flexibility they might want like working part-time, working from home a day or two. But there are legitimate concerns about not working on the big cases or the big transactions or not being taken seriously if you aren’t physically in the office.

“But they [partners] understood that I had the judgment to know I will be here when I need to be here. I kept throwing up every reason for them to change their mind, and I felt encouraged by their support.”

Steve Lancaster said female representation in upper management should continue to increase in step with law school statistics, which indicate a rise in female students nationally, though not necessarily at the state level. In Arkansas, 41.4% of the law degrees awarded by the University of Arkansas since 2007 have been to females.

That’s almost identical to the number of degrees awarded to females (41.1%) last year.
At UALR’s Bowen School, there were 50 females (41.7%) among 120 graduates in 2017. That compares with 46.7% in 2012 and 50.3% in 2007.

“When you have more females in the organization to choose from, it’s natural there are going to be people that migrate to the top,” he said. “But one of the things we see is that retention of women is as big or a bigger concern than the initial hiring. I think that’s a reflection of the demands of both being a lawyer, and what society puts on women.”