When Jami McKeon was elected Chair of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius in 2013, her predecessor Francis Milone gave her some advice: “Make time for events where you can dialogue with other law firm leaders.”
There were plenty of events to choose from, but these events, like the larger legal industry, were male-dominated. McKeon, who said she’d never thought much of her gender until reporters focused on it, was surprised to learn how few female firm leaders there actually were.
If she wanted to network with female leaders exclusively, she’d have to create that opportunity herself. After talking with Kim Koopersmith, another newly female minted Chair at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, McKeon sent out dinner invitations. A few months later, in early 2014, six law firm heads — all leading large law firms, all women — met for dinner at Per Se, a French restaurant near Columbus Circle in New York.
It was supposed to be a one-off event. “I only knew them by reputation,” McKeon said of the other women, “but we had such a good time, and there was so much to talk about, so many commonalities, we decided to make it a regular thing.”
The group has been reuniting every few months ever since to discuss law firm strategy, current events in the industry, and the challenges of being a female in leadership. The group adds to the invite list as women across the country are elected to chair positions.
“I will move mountains to be there,” Crowell & Moring Chair Angela Styles said of the gatherings. “Even if there weren’t dinners, the fact that we all communicate with each other is great. I think it may be good for the future of the profession, too.”
On Tuesday, North Carolina-based Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice added to the growing ranks of female firm leaders, naming Elizabeth “Betty” Temple as Chair and CEO, the first female head in Womble Carlyle’s 140-year history.
Asked whether Temple, the latest woman to take charge of a large law firm, would be getting a dinner invitation, McKeon laughed. “It’s funny you ask that,” she said. “I’m actually writing her today.”
There are no strict parameters for who is invited, McKeon said, and the planning is informal. Anyone can suggest a meeting at any time, in any location, as long as it’s relatively convenient: in addition to New York, the group has met in Chicago, Washington D.C., and Denver.
Stasia Kelly, Co-Managing Partner for the Americas at DLA Piper, said sometimes smaller groups get together as well. After Cristina Carvalho was named Managing Partner at Arent Fox in November, Kelly and Terry Pritchard of Bryan Cave took her to lunch in D.C. (Both Kelly and Pritchard were at the first dinner in New York in 2014.)
As for who picks up the check after the meal, McKeon said the women take turns.
McKeon said the conversations often focus on how to improve law firm diversity, or the unique challenges of being a woman in a legal industry that sometimes still feels like a boys’ club.
Asked about some of these challenges, Lee Schreter, Chair at Littler Mendelson, and a regular attendee of the dinners, pointed to Major, Lindsey & Africa’s 2014 Partner Compensation Survey, which reported a pay gap between male and female partners in Am Law 200 firms.
While there are typically a good number of women who enter the legal profession, few make it to the top ranks of a major law firm. According to the National Association of Law Placement, the percentage of women associates at large law firms in 2015 stood at 45 percent, but the number of female partners was much lower — 21 percent.
Jerry Clements, who’s been at the helm of Texas-based Locke Lord since 2006, explained that a more forceful — and stereotypically male — leadership style has some advantages in the legal industry.
“I think women tend to display management and leadership skills a little differently,” she said. “There’s the challenge of being a strong leader without being viewed as a — I won’t use the b-word, but we know what we’re talking about.”
But sometimes, diversity and women’s issues aside, the meetings provide a place to escape the standard stresses of piloting a high profile firm. At Clements’ first meeting — in late 2014 at La Tasca, a Spanish restaurant in Washington, D.C. — she and McKeon were both navigating law firm mergers.
“She was focused on the Bingham McCutchen deal, and I was focused on our merger with Edwards Wildman,” Clements said. “Suffice it to say, we enjoyed a couple of glasses of wine that evening.”
McKeon said the list of invitees has grown steadily — there have been as many as 10 or 12 at some dinners — but she looks forward to the day when there are too many female leaders for the dinners to be practical.
“Once you get a certain number of women in the same room, an idea like this doesn’t make sense,” McKeon said. “We’re hoping to get to the point where women in law firm leadership isn’t even an issue.”
Increased diversity at the top of law firm ranks may be inevitable, given the level of diversity at the bottom. Several law firm heads pointed to the number of women in more junior positions as a reason to be optimistic.
“I think the legal industry is undergoing a radical change right now, in leadership and across the board,” said Temple, the new Chair at Womble Carlyle. “As the Baby Boomers retire, younger attorneys are stepping into those leadership roles, and there are simply more women attorneys in that generation.”
For now, the number of female chairs is still small enough to keep the dinners intimate — and necessary. “All of us have great relationships with male chairs, who are also focused on diversity,” McKeon said, “but we come from a little different background.”
Clements agreed. “I missed the first meeting, but I’ve tried not to miss any since,” she said. “We’ll keep adding to the group. Now we have Betty to welcome as well.”