Year of the Woman
Women law firm leaders discussed attrition and harmful policies in a time where women hit an all-time high in law firm, business and government leadership positions

by Tony Flesor

Female office and law firm leaders from Colorado joined Law Week Colorado managing editor Tony Flesor on April 3 to discuss what “the Year of the Woman” means for those already in leadership positions and those women who aspire to them one day. Participants were Heather Broxterman of Broxterman Alicks McFarlane; Heather Perkins of Faegre Baker Daniels; Shannon Bell of Kelly & Walker; and Christine Lamb of Fortis Law Partners. The conversation was reported by Hunter + Geist.

All-time highs

LAW WEEK: From the outside perspective, it seems like within the past year or so, there’s been a real concerted conversation and effort that women are being promoted more toward leadership positions and public positions. In Congress, 2018 was considered the Year of the Woman. The number of women in the House of Representatives hit 127. But that was an increase from 20.6% to 23.7%. So that was the big increase. Female CEOs at Fortune 500 companies reached an all-time high of 6.4 percent. Women on board positions at Fortune 500 companies got up to 22.2% in 2017. And, in the law, equity partner positions made it to 20%.

So there have been all these noted big gains, but the numbers are obviously still not at equal proportions or close to equal proportions.

What do you all make of this “moment” that has been attributed to what’s going on right now? Whether you see the bright side or if it’s still kind of not really hitting the mark.

BELL: I do think that what we are seeing, with some of the uptick in females in politics, is a glimmer of hope. But I think we are a long way away from having a solution and to having it be equalized.

I think what we’re seeing in the legal profession and among CEOs is we’re still having a problem with maintaining the high-level positions. Although we’re seeing more people get opportunities earlier in their careers, I think there’s a lot of burnout, and there’s a lot of difficulty in maintaining them in that position to allow them to get to equity partner level, to allow them to advance all the way to CEO, to allow them to advance to a general counsel position.   

PERKINS: I would agree with that. I graduated from the [University of Colorado] in 1998, and I think I was in a class where there was real parity in terms of women and men, and women at the top of the class as well as men being at the top of the class. We start out with the same number of women and men going into the workforce from law school. And I was looking at some stats about the Mansfield Rule and the women and diverse lawyers who leave at different times, and it decreases and decreases and decreases.

I also think that as a litigator — and maybe this is me seeing more of it, not being in denial on it and not wanting to believe in the good of all people — but I also see more willingness to behave badly toward women in professional settings than I did 10 or 15 years ago and when I first entered the workforce in the early ‘90s.

BROXTERMAN: Well, we mentioned that we saw the highest numbers in Congress ever, and, you know, it’s great, but if we were actually making progress, we would have a watershed year every year, every time.

While it’s tempting to want to celebrate that immediately and right now, we’re still on a journey. And I guess I’ve been surprised, honestly. I’m relatively a more recent graduate of law school. I graduated from law school in 2010, and I still am surprised in certain contexts about not treating pregnant women with dignity and respect. And it’s always still surprising.

I recently brought my husband to an event, a cocktail hour thing, and we were meeting a bunch of people. At one point we introduced him to my partners, and I introduced him to someone — he was an older guy, 30 years older than my partner — who immediately cracked a joke about how he’d always wanted to marry my partner. And it was, like, we’re at a professional event. Do you have any work stories or anything about her work or her competence or her education? It was funny because at the time, my two female partners and I completely blew it off, and my husband, later that night, was still so shocked by it. And good for him, I’m glad he’s shocked, but it really spoke to the idea that sometimes, when you’re not in those positions and you don’t see that, it’s hard to really internalize how that feels and what it means.   

LAMB: I do think that the increase in the number of women on boards has been pretty significant. Part of me wonders if our profession, as a service profession, will have the sort of trickle down from that. It will take a little bit of time, first starting with those boards and those female CEOs and executives, and because we’re in the service of those people, we will be next because those board members and those CEOs are going to be looking around saying why are all of our lawyers white men? And so maybe we’re next.   

To read this story and other complete articles featured in the May 6, 2019 print edition of Law Week Colorado, copies are available for purchase online.