Are Women’s Initiatives Useless?

 EBG Attorneys Respond to Critic of Women's Initiatives in American Lawyer Magazine

To the Editor:

As the founders of Epstein Becker Green's Women's Initiative (WI), now celebrating its seventh year, we were troubled by Denise Howell's sweeping criticism of such programs ("Death by Committee: Is a Women's Initiative Meeting Worth Your Time?" June 3, 2008). We find it ironic that it is Howell who uses ridicule to support her self-styled proposition that WIs "may do more harm than good" through her harsh, unrealistic and frankly insulting caricatures of women attorneys in the hypothetical law firm she creates. We believe that Howell's article, in an apparent effort to be provocative, does WIs and female attorneys a great disservice.

Certainly, in an ideal world, there would be no need for WIs, and law firm development programs would be fabulously effective for all involved. We fully acknowledge the validity of Howell's concern that too many law firms remain unresponsive to the real-world challenges facing women lawyers, particularly, as she emphasizes, the struggle to balance work and family obligations.

Howell errs, however, in her implicit assumption that the only worthy purpose of a WI is to focus on work/family and related issues. While we support and, in fact, have personally benefited from, policies and practices that encourage family leave, flex-time part-time and the like, we disagree that this should be the singular, or even main, focus of a law firm's WI. Moreover, it is unrealistic to suggest, as Howell does, that compensation will not be affected during the time women (or men) take advantage of these flex policies. If monetary parity is the goal, learning how to get "dollars in the door" is precisely what WIs should have as their focus.

As for-profit enterprises, law firms have the right to expect both partners and associates to contribute to the firm's growth. Traditionally, the main avenue through which attorneys have done so is by bringing in new clients and new matters, and, historically, the most fertile sources of new business, such as access to influential professional networks, have been the almost exclusive province of male lawyers. Even with many law firms broadening their metrics for determining an attorney's value (an initiative we support), client acquisition and business generation will always count — another fact that Howell ignores.

Hence, WIs that focus on increasing women's access to potential clients through internal and external networking, as well as on strengthening leadership skills through mentoring, provide female attorneys with a valuable service — one that only increases in worth as more women assume higher level executive positions in the corporate world. Howell's disdain for WIs that focus in whole or in part on practical business issues — marketing, networking, mentoring and the like — is just plain unhelpful to women seeking to advance in the legal profession. Relationships and trust are built through interaction and over time. Even a hurried lunch with a partner provides associates with an opportunity to begin a business relationship — at the least, it's a start.

There is no question that a WI should be designed to meet the specific needs of a law firm and its female attorneys, keeping in mind that a firm's return-on-investment will be both internal and external. Those needs, and appropriate solutions, will differ from firm to firm. Support from the top is important, and leadership is clearly key, but we question the wisdom of a "czar." In our experience, a successful WI program will be multi-layered, and multi-leveled.

All WIs should be viewed as works-in-progress, to be regularly evaluated and then appropriately tweaked or even substantially revamped. Simply walking away from an imperfect WI, or one where immediate success is hard to measure, strikes us as a hasty and ultimately self-destructive reaction, like the proverbial throwing the baby out with the bathwater.