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Woman Power at Debevoise & Plimpton

Vivia Chen

March 31, 2011

Womenfist 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?

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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I'm sure its also not a coincidence that Debevoise -as well as Cravath, which finished second in the percentage of female partners promoted - also were the two firms promoting the fewest total partners.

In other words, the firms are apparently going into the toilet, which is what happens when you hire a lot of women, and something probably picked-up upon by talented guy associates, who I presume are abandoning ship.

Cleary, what's up? Live up to your reputation as a progressive place.

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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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