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Can You Trust Working Mother's List of Top Family-Friendly Firms?

Vivia Chen

May 25, 2010

Note:   Updated to reflect comment by Flex-Time Lawyers.

This week, Slate nailed an issue that's piqued my curiosity: How did a company like Novartis, which was just slapped with one of the biggest punitive damages awards for sex discrimination ($250 million), make Working Mother's coveted list of the top 100 companies for women? Despite systemic gender discrimination, writes blogger Sharon Lerner, Novartis has been on that list for over ten years.

Fotolia_18882486 Our guard went up because Working Mother, in collaboration with Flex-Time Lawyers, also publishes the top 50 law firms for women. That list has become a bit of a holy grail for job seekers seeking family-friendly environments. Among other considerations, Working Mother gives points to firms and companies that offer flexible schedules, telecommuting work options, and emergency child care. The winning law firms, the magazine's Web site says, also have "more lawyers working reduced hours (8 percent versus 5 percent nationwide)" and more female equity partners (20 percent versus 16 percent nationwide). 

But Is there a Novartis lurking in the law firm list? Hope not, though it's interesting that one of the listed firms, Fried Frank, is facing a handful of discrimination suits, including one by a gay lawyer who claims she experienced sexual harassment. (The firm denies the allegation.)

Maybe I'm giving the lawyers too much credit, but I'm betting that even the most sexist big-firm lawyer is smart enough not to pull the kind of stunts that the neanderthals at Novartis did:

The trial told a story that could have been written 40 years ago, about 12 female employees up against a hostile old boys' club. Their male supervisors went to great lengths to keep them out of management positions, lying about the dates of trainings, promoting less-qualified men over them, and then taking these guys and their male clients out to strip clubs to conduct business. Meanwhile, the women were subjected to the silent treatment, the worst assignments, and the offer of a seat in a boss's lap.

Another male Novartis employee came up with this little ditty: "First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes flex-time and a baby carriage."

Slate suggests that we--women--have become overly infatuated with so-called family-friendly measures. "Does the lawsuit say something about how these lists get put together? And more importantly, does it imply that the growing fad of 'flex-time' policies at American companies is just a PR maneuver that does little to relieve the burdens on working mothers?"  

The problem, says Slate, starts with the fact that companies "are chosen according to employers' self-reports, which leaves little recourse for exploring the potential gaps between stated policies and reality."

And what does Working Mother and Flex-Time have to say about all this? Deborah Epstein Henry, Flex-Time's founder, says she stands by their list: "It's a self-selected pool, but it's not a self-selected winner list." (Carol Evan, president of Working Mother Media, has yet to return my e-mail.)

In the meantime, are those family-friendly policies working at your shop?   

If you have topics you'd like to discuss, or information to share for The Careerist, e-mail chief blogger Vivia Chen at [email protected].

Photo by Sean Prior/Fotolia.com


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Work life and family life will always be in conflict--like a zero-sum game. The question is what sacrifices are you willing to make.

It takes one laywer to feed five other laywers, or ...

Anyone who thinks that law firms have an interest in men or women attorneys other than obtaining the most it can from them, whether in terms of billed hours, new business, or sourced collections, is deluding themselves. The enlightened (and in the long term, more successful) firms are those that realize that they can get more out of people when both sides benefit from the relationship.

I don't know about the company lists, but the law firm lists are not accurate. My old firm was constantly nominating itself for these types of diversity recognitions (and winning them), while at the same time treating minorities and working mothers as second-class citizens.

There are definitely a good number of law firms whose diversity initiatives have yielded meaningful results. Unfortunately, all statistical data point to continued dismal prospects for women in private law practice. If anything,we are losing ground, and steadily.

On the point of your piece: One can never rely on these lists as to law firms, I assure you. You've got to dig much deeper to determine whether the rankings are meaningful. Find out the firm's stats on women and other diverse partners, and make sure you know the breakdown among equity, non-equty, part-time, flex-time and so on. Talk candidly with people you know at the firm, or at least in the firm's top market(s), or find someone else who can get you some inside information. And, for goodness sake (Working Mother, are you listening?), do your research on outstanding discrimination and other claims. Finally,read Above the Law and other industry blogs, which actually do an excellent job of piercing the partnership veil.

The Top 10 or Top 100 magazine lists are, in my opinion, of dubious value. I have been reading them for years and have always found them misleading. Business is business, especially in this economy. Diversity friendly policies have fallen on hard times (read:are underfunded), except in firms where (a) the culture has traditionally supported diversity (b) or the client base requires attention to diversity statistics, especially in populating client teams.

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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: [email protected]

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