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Wilmer's New Partners--Color Them Pink

Vivia Chen

November 16, 2010

It's just the start of the season for new partner announcements, but I'm willing to gamble. My bet is that Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr will win the contest for elevating the highest percentage and number of women equity partners in The Am Law 100 for the coming year.

Of the 11 newly promoted partners (their elevation will be effective as of January 2011) at the one-tier partnership firm, eight are women. That means women make up a whopping 73 percent of the new partners. (Currently, the firm has 24 percent women partners, and 9 percent diverse partners.)

Perlstein_ William J "It wasn't conscious," says Wilmer's co-managing partner William Perlstein (pictured right). "There was no decision to increase the number of women partners." He adds that the firm "really didn't realize what percentage of women would be up . . . we start with a reasonably large number of candidates, and the [partnership selection] committee does a careful review."

Perlstein makes it sound almost routine (maybe that's just in keeping with the decorous ways of an old-line firm), but I kept pressing him to spill the secret behind Wilmer's success with the ladies.

Perlstein insists he's not sure, but he does point out that the firm has a number of part-time partners. (There are 13 partners working part-time: ten women and three men.) In fact, he says, one of the new partners is a part-timer. "Part-time partners have worked well here," he notes, adding that the firm has had a thriving part-time policy since the 1990s.

But Perlstein also insists that the firm's part-time policy is "just part of the piece."

He might be downplaying part-time at Wilmer because the firm's idea of a reduced schedule doesn't seem that relaxing. "Generally they work 75-80 percent of the full-time schedule," Perlstein says. (Two thousand hours is usually the norm.) "You've got to be available all the time to the client. . . . They work quite hard, but less than full-time."

Jennifer Berrent, one of the new partners, says there's another reason women tend to stay at Wilmer: culture. A single mother with a 4-year-old son, Berrent says even senior partners have their priorities right. "The head of the department told me that there will be conflicts between home and work, and that home should take priority," she says.

Despite the availability of part-time work, Berrent opted to stay full-time: "We have a clear hours expectation here--2,000 hours, and that feels okay to me." More important, she says, is the freedom she has to work from home or on a telecommuting basis. "I don't feel I'm fighting the system here," she says about her irregular schedule. "Unless women craft their own systems, they don't feel empowered."

So Wilmer's secret to success with women boils down to a solid history of part-time work (if billing 1,600 hours fits your idea of a reduced schedule), giving lawyers true flexibility, and that intangible thing call culture. Simple, right?

 Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? E-mail The Careerist's chief blogger, Vivia Chen, at VChen@alm.com.

 

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Having one tier forces them to make the tough decisions.

What's the buy-in for equity partners these days?

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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