When Regina Pisa's partners approached her five years ago and asked her to be managing partner of the Boston-based law firm Goodwin Procter, her first thought was, "Come back and ask me again in 10 years."
At just 42, Pisa was concentrating on her booming mergers and acquisitions practice, and the thought of managing the growing firm was far from her mind. But the firm's leadership was persistent. They had drawn up a prototype of the kind of leader the firm needed — an energetic player who could set a course for growth and profitability — and they knew Pisa fit their model perfectly.
When Pisa accepted the assignment, she told herself she'd do it for three years. But now, well into her fifth year as managing partner of the 500-lawyer firm, she says she's just hitting her stride. "In these five years, we've seen unprecedented growth and profitability as a firm, even in the face of the recession," she says. "My partners are feeling good about our strategy and our mission, and the firm has tremendous momentum."
That's a remarkable accomplishment for any managing partner, to say nothing of one of her status as the first woman to be managing partner of a large national law firm. Since Pisa was named managing partner in 1998, a few women have joined her at the management helm of their firms, but by and large, they remain rare commodities.
While there are no exact figures on the number of women who head large law firms, the number of women partners continues to grow. According to the National Association of Law Placement, women account for 16 percent of the partners at large law firms, a number which has grown — albeit modestly — from 10 years ago, when women accounted for 12 percent of partners at those same firms.
"When I was named managing partner, a lot of the immediate press coverage focused on the fact that I was a woman," recalls Pisa. "Nobody focused on the fact that I was only 42 at the time." She was also struck by her partners' surprise over the media's obsession with her gender. "They didn't really think of me in that context, and I was really flattered by that. It was a decision made for all the right reasons."
Across the country in Silicon Valley, California, there is Marina Park, another woman named managing partner at the age of 42. That was four years ago, when the partners at Pillsbury Winthrop, which currently has 800 lawyers, elevated her from managing partner of the firm's Silicon Valley office to managing partner of the 17-city firm. Not only was she the firm's first woman managing partner, but she was also the first to be working part-time.
"At that time, my youngest child was two, and I had children who were five and eight," recalls Park. "I told the partners I would do it, but that they had to be understanding that I had young children at home, and there would be some constraints on my time. I made it clear that if they wanted someone to be available every weekend and every night, that's not me."
In fact, Park believes that her selection as managing partner, despite her part-time schedule (she's since resumed working full-time), reflects the firm's tradition of advancing women, and recognizing the needs of both men and women to make time for family life. "We have women managers because it's a firm that has grown up with a high degree of acceptance of individual differences," says Park. "We tolerate a wide variation in style and approach."
Pillsbury has women in its top two spots. Not only is Park the managing partner, but the firm's chair is Mary Cranston. The strides that women have made in law firm leadership are not lost on her. "Twenty-five years ago, my firm was populated by tall white guys in grey suits. There were women, but you had to go hunt them up. The personnel policies were archaic. Pillsbury put in a maternity policy to take care of my situation. There was no support for working mothers and no source of advice on how to make it all come together," Cranston recalls. By contrast, she notes that today, the world is a vastly different place, particularly in her firm.
Firm culture can have a tremendous impact on a woman's advancement. Based in Paris, Christine Lagarde chairs the 3,300-lawyer international law firm, Baker & McKenzie. "I never encountered glass ceilings," says Lagarde, who is known as Madame Chairman. "This is largely attributable to the very international nature of Baker & McKenzie, as well as its culture, which combines respect, tolerance, and diversity."
These women notwithstanding, glass ceilings can be a tremendous obstacle to women seeking management positions in large firms. In addition, many women encounter the "maternal wall," observes Joan C. Williams, professor and director of the Program on Gender, Work, and Family at American University Law School and author of Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What to Do About It. She explains that more than 80 percent of women become mothers, and they do it between the ages of 25 and 44, the key career-building years, making it difficult to work more than 50 hours a week. "In order to get anywhere near partner, associates have to work the kind of schedule few mothers are willing to work," Williams says.
Another obstacle many women face is something Williams calls the "ideal worker syndrome." Ideal workers start to work in their early adult life and work very long hours for 40 straight years. For many women to do that, she says, they must elect not to have children, or they need a stay-at-home spouse. "Ninety percent of people in upper-level management are married to stay-at-home wives," she says. But at the same time, says Williams, most women lawyers are married to other professionals.
Marina Park, Mary Cranston, and Christine Lagarde have all skirted the maternal wall–thriving in firms that have allowed them to be successful lawyers and mothers. Park believes that being a mother has actually helped her to be a better manager. "Once you have kids, you recognize that people are who they are and you need to learn to live and work with the differences," she says. "Before I had kids, I thought if people didn't experience the world as I did, there must be something wrong with them."
With women leaders of large law firms still such an anomaly, it may be some time before they are regarded as "managing partners" without the "female" modifier. Says Professor Williams, "Women partners won't cease being interesting until there are more of them."
Even still, Virginia P. Sikes, who in March was named managing partner of Philadelphia-based Montgomery, McCracken, Walker & Rhoads, a 150-lawyer firm with offices in three locations, says she feels like a "managing partner" rather than a "woman managing partner."
"I feel like I'm in this position because my partners were happy to have me in it based on their views of me, as well as on their recognition of the need for diversity," says Sikes.
The duties of the managing partner are as varied as the firms these women work in. Sikes says the "bumper sticker" description of her role is "to make sure everything happens the way it should." Her firm also has an executive director who handles administrative tasks, so her focus is primarily on honing the firm's vision and making sure its policies and structure supports it.
At Pillsbury Winthrop, Park concentrates her managing partner efforts on practice and client development. She also works closely with the firm's executive director to ensure that human resources and information technology systems are working in conjunction with the lawyers' needs.
At Baker & McKenzie, Lagarde says her role is "similar to that of leading a large multinational corporation, with a democratic culture and a global reach, with 36 countries in operation, and multiple shareholders who are the executives as well as the workers of the business."
The amount of time they have left over for law practice varies as well. Sikes is still determining the time she'll have left to devote to her tax practice. Her goal, she says, is to meet all her previous financial targets, although she recognizes that may not be realistic.
Pisa estimates that she devotes about 60 percent of her time to management and the remainder to her mergers-and- acquisitions practice. Park rarely practices law anymore, particularly since the firm Pillsbury Madison merged with Winthrop, Stimpson, Putnam & Roberts in 2001, a major administrative undertaking. Similarly, Lagarde says her management duties take 150 percent of her time.
How to Become Managing Partner
These women managing partners universally support more women following them up the management ladder. All these women rose by displaying incredible professional competence along with dedication to their firms and leadership skills. They offer a range of advice from the practical to the spiritual.
- Join up. Be willing to join committees and take a leadership role. That's where partners can take notice of your judgment and leadership abilities. "You can't wait to be asked to take a seat at the table," says Regina Pisa. "If you want things, be the driver in your own career and participate."
- Take risks. Pisa believes that women don't take enough risks. "The less risky choice would have been for me to continue just practicing law," she says.
- Get a mentor. "I've been lucky to have had very strong mentors in my life, both of whom were male and – whether they realized it or not – were raging feminists," says Pisa. One of those mentors was her father, the other a partner at the firm. "Both of them saw no barriers to where I could go," says Pisa.
- Set goals. Mary Cranston advises setting firm goals for yourself, and then "stay with them doggedly until you get there. I took baby steps every day that seemed to move me in the direction of my goals," she says.
- Examine your priorities. "Take the time to figure out what's important to you, and move toward that," advises Marina Park. "It can be as simple as looking forward to getting out of bed and going to work in the morning. When you're not looking forward to going to work, you need to sit down and see why. Is it the kind of work? The kind of people?"
- Work for change. Professor Joan C. Williams stresses the importance of women working to create firm cultures where women can advance. "Work with other women in your firm to redefine the ideal worker as someone who has outside responsibilities," she advises. "Then the number of women in your firm will climb very sharply and you will have a much better chance of avoiding the maternal wall and the glass ceiling."
- Do what you love. Similarly, Pisa stresses that to excel, both men and women have to do what they love. "Figure out what you love to do, and do it with a passion," she says. "I don't think you'll ever be great at what you do unless it's something that you love doing."
Michelle Bates Deakin is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Mass.
From the July/August 2003 issue of Diversity & The Bar®