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First Gay and Female on Marquee--Trend Starter or Non-Starter?

Vivia Chen

May 21, 2010

Gays and women made history in the clubby world of Am Law 100 firms this spring when Kathleen Sullivan became a name partner at what is now Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan.

Sullivan, the former dean of Stanford Law School who has been mentioned as a contender for a U.S. Supreme Court appointment, is a double whammy in the big firm world: She's the first female and first openly gay lawyer to have her name featured on the marquee of an Am Law 100 firm.  

Justine00176_BW_SML[1]When the news first broke, I expected women and gays to be dancing in the streets. But so far, the reaction has been surprisingly subdued. The first female stuff got some play (Alison Frankel wrote about it in The Am Law Litigation Daily), though the gay angle got somewhat pushed aside in the shuffle (Above the Law did mention it in passing).

"Maybe we've become blasé about firsts for women," says Cynthia Calvert, a co-founder of the Project for Attorney Retention at UC Hastings (the group focuses on work/life balance issues). Calvert admits that the news about Sullivan's elevation escaped her attention.

Could this blasé reaction be a sign of progress? Maybe it signals that the doors to the clubhouse have been open, and, as such, diversity is easy to find among the legal muckety-mucks.  

If only things were that far along. The more realistic--and depressing--explanation is that Sullivan's elevation doesn't make a damn bit of difference in the larger scheme of things. "Anytime we see women reach milestone positions, it's something to be happy about," says Lauren Rikleen, who runs the Bowditch Institute for Women’s Success. "But when you have less than ten percent of women who are managing partners, that's more the story than one about a particular success."

Also, what does it mean that it takes a superstar like Sullivan to break into the name-partner ranks? "You shouldn't have to be a Supreme Court contender to run a law firm or be name partner," Rikleen says. "Most men [leaders] aren't on the short list for the Supreme Court. We set the bar higher for women."

Even Sullivan is reluctant to say that she's starting a trend. "Name changes are rare things," she says. "The major issue is whether women are at a place where they have a chance to succeed and shine."

And what does she say about being the first openly gay name partner in the Am Law 100? "I don't know if any of the name partners at Cravath were gay," she says coyly (Sullivan actually started her legal career at Cravath, Swaine & Moore). "At Quinn Emanuel, we're not trying to make a social statement."

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

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 Steven Laxton, courtesy of Quinn Emanuel


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age where no one in their right mind would quit their jobs. You've got your finger on the pulse, you do!

Congrats, sis! Your siblings across the country are proud of you!

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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: [email protected]

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