April 16, 2014

Women and Work

Sharp Focus

A group of women lawyers unites to drum up business and dispel some misperceptions.

Cynthia Barnett | 2/1/2006

Suzanne labrit is one of 37 Shutts & Bowen attorneys who started "Focus on Women."
In addition to representing clients, working in charitable organizations and teaching law courses, many of the 37 women lawyers at Miami-based Shutts & Bowen are moms. Among them, they are raising more than 30 children under age 18. But last year, they took on one more project: A formal initiative called "Focus on Women" aimed at sharpening their rainmaking skills. The idea is to make business development a team effort, with events that link women attorneys and powerful women executives.

It's no secret that while women have made enormous strides in the profession, they lag male counterparts in some significant ways, such as compensation and the percentage who make partner. According to the American Bar Association's Commission on Women in the Profession, of the nation's 1.1 million lawyers, 29.4% are women. Their median weekly earnings are $1,237, 77% of the $1,610 median earned by men. The problem is less outright discrimination and more the business development model under which lawyers make money. Some women leave their jobs to raise children just at the point in their legal careers when attorneys begin to rake in clients. They fall behind male colleagues who typically don't take on as many domestic responsibilities. Others who continue to work while juggling family duties may not be able to devote "happy hour" to client development. For women, the issues aren't just family related. Single women lawyers may not feel comfortable on the golf course.

Suzanne Labrit, a commercial trial lawyer at Shutts & Bowen, sees the women's initiative as a way to generate more business for the firm. Hopefully, the initiative also will help crack a misperception by many professional women that too much focus on children, aging parents or other perceived "women's issues" subtracts from professionalism. Just as the legal profession is changing -- women earned 51% of the law degrees awarded in 2005 -- so are corporate boardrooms. In 2000, 9% of corporate counsels among the Fortune 500 were women; four years later, the percentage was 15.4%, according to the ABA women's commission. Some New York firms have figured out that perks such as spa weekends or wine tastings are more effective marketing opportunities for women execs than a golf tourney.

Labrit says Shutts & Bowen isn't quite ready for spa weekends, but the firm has made inroads by sponsoring charitable events in the community that focus on women's needs. "This is a recognition on the part of our firm, and not just the women here, that as the face of corporate boardrooms changes, the business of establishing relationships also must change," says Labrit.

"By definition, building relationships in the way it was done 15 to 20 years ago, based on what worked for predominantly white male executives and general counsels then, may not be as effective today."

Tags: Politics & Law, North Central, Government/Politics & Law

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