I'm used to law firms trying to sell me about how swell they are to their ladies. They tell me about their women's initiatives, mentoring programs, spa parties. Yada, yada. Too often, though, when you look behind those niceties, you find that women lack actual power (e.g., many don't have equity--or firms dodge the whole equity issue--and few sit on management committees and such).
But I have to admit I'm impressed with Debevoise & Plimpton's recent track record on women partners. The firm just announced its latest batch of partners--three partners, of which two are women. That could be dismissed as a fluke, except that women have made up 50 percent or more of new partners at the firm for the last four years.
Of the 15 partners Debevoise made from 2008 to 2011, nine are women. More significant, they are all equity partners (it is a one-tier firm). Here's how Debevoise measures itself against firms it regards as peers:
Debevoise partner Mary Beth Hogan says the firm's track record with women "isn't a surprise." She says it's the "result of having role models who have made it work, and years of advising, mentoring, and training by both men and women."
Certainly, Debevoise has an unusually long history of allowing part-time work. "We've had a part-time policy for 40 years," explains Hogan. "Barbara Paul Robinson, who made partner in 1967, asked to work part-time [informally] when she was an associate, and she got permission to do so."
For Hogan personally, the firm's policy of keeping part-timers on partnership track was critical: "I was part-time for five years from 1997, and I made partner in 1999, when my oldest child was 6." (The firm formalized part-time in 1987, and made it explicit that part-timers are eligible for partnership, without being put back for part-time, in 1995.)
What also makes Debevoise's part-time policy unique is that it is automatic; in other words, there's no approval process to go part-time. "You don't have to go to your boss and have that uncomfortable conversation and make it a big deal," says Hogan.
Wow. Imagine treating associates as responsible adults--without making them grovel for flexibility! Are we ready for something that radical and simple?
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