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Female Lawyers Hitting 'Glass Plateau'
By Elizabeth Stawicki
December 18, 2000
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A Minnesota State Bar study finds the number of women attorneys in Twin Cities law firms is growing. But women still lag far behind their male counterparts in positions of power. Those findings are similar to a recent national study of the nation's 250 largest law firms.

How Twin Cities law firms stack up in the National Law Journal's study of the 250 largest law firms in the U.S.

Percent of Female Associates
National Average31.0%
Faegre and Benson50.0%
Leonard, Street and Deinard44.9%
Briggs and Morgan42.9%
Robins Kaplan Miller & Ciresi42.1%
Oppenheimer Wolff & Donnelly41.8%
Dorsey & Whitney33.9%
Percent of Female Partners
National Average15.6%
Leonard Street and Deinard21.1%
Briggs and Morgan19.3%
Faegre & Benson18.3%
Robins Kaplan Miller & Ciresi16.8%
Dorsey & Whitney12.8%
Oppenheimer Wolff & Donnelly*10.2%
*Oppenheimer says their numbers are actually closer to 13%
KATHLEEN SANBERG knows firsthand the strides women attorneys have made in the past 20 years. The Faegre and Benson partner remembers working at another firm 18 years ago and having a client ask to talk to the "real lawyer" on the case.

"It's been a long time since I heard anybody indicate they didn't want a woman lawyer on something; that they only wanted men," she said. "People know it's not socially acceptable and because they're used to dealing with more women, it doesn't happen."

The American Bar Association says nearly half of all law school graduates are women. At Minnesota law firms, the number of women has also risen above the national average of 30 percent. Faegre and Benson leads Twin Cities large law firms with half of its lawyers being women.

"You just can't be successful as a law firm going forward in the future if you don't effectively recruit really talented women lawyers and women law students," says Dan Wilczek, who heads the firm's recruiting efforts.

Wilczek says about 10 years ago, the firm lost several highly talented women who left for in-house jobs at corporations and universities. The firm has since changed its rules to allow part-timers to remain on a partnership track, an acknowledgement that women are still the primary caretakers of children and benefit from flexible work schedules.

"I think we've got beyond the point that every woman who's thinking of working a reduced time practice doesn't have to feel like a she's a pioneer," according to Wilczek.

But one woman lawyer says not all firms have a similar attitude when it comes to partnerships - including firms that say they do. The woman, who requested anonymity, left a medium-sized Twin Cities law firm after 10 years for a university position.

"You still have to do everything else that's required in order to become partner and it becomes a difficult situation for women who are told, 'Yes, you can be partner even if you work part-time,' but then are told you'll have to bring in all the same number of clients and you still have to expand the pie," she told Minnesota Public Radio. "Then your part-time work doesn't feel so much like part time work because you still have to bill the hours required to be part time." Women account for only 15 percent of partners at the nation's top 250 largest lawfirms according to the National Law Journal.

Minnesota law firms don't fare much better. Oppenheimer, Wolff and Donnelly came out below the national average. The firm's Tonia Schultz says she doesn't know why the numbers are low at Oppenheimer, but she says the firm is taking steps to improve the climate for women.

"When we hire anybody now, we always make sure we have women on their list of people to interview, because occasionally we will find men candidates who don't have a very good attitude towards women, and we have made several hiring decisions were we've decided not to hire a male candidate because of the way he treated the women he interviewed with," according to Schultz.

Kathleen Sanberg, who's also former co-chair of the Women and Law Committee of the Minnesota State Bar says there's another force pushing lawfirms toward a greater gender balance: the financial bottom line. She says now that women have risen to power positions in other fields, they are demanding to see a law firm's gender make-up before they do business. Sanberg says if they don't like what they see, they take their legal work elsewhere.