Cravath’s New Chief Could Represent Tipping Point For Female Leadership via Law360

Posted on 07-25-2016 by
Tags: Industry Insights & Trends , legalwriting , LIT , womensequality

The article below has been republished in full courtesy of Law360, written by Aebra Coe. 

Cravath Swaine & Moore LLP is by no means the first BigLaw firm to elect a woman to lead the partnership, but experts say news that longtime partner Faiza J. Saeed has broken that final barrier of law firm hierarchy could hasten others to follow suit given the Wall Street firm’s status as a trendsetter.

The white shoe firm, which often sets the benchmark for BigLaw compensation, seems to have a knack for starting movements, last month prompting an arms race among its peers when it raised associate starting salaries to $180,000.

Experts say its decision to elect Saeed, the firm’s mergers and acquisitions co-chair, as its first female presiding partner in its nearly 200-year history may lead to an uptick in the now-abysmal number of women who lead the world’s largest and most prestigious law firms.

“For Cravath to do this is a statement to rest of the legal world: This is something that there should be more of,” said Gloria Sandrino, principal of partner and group recruiting at Lateral Link. “I do think that they are hoping this will set the trend for other firms to do the same.”

Representation of female partners, let alone leaders, at elite law firms is staggeringly low. According to a recent Law360 survey of the 100 largest law firms by U.S. headcount, the percentage of female partners has held fairly steady over the past three years at around 22 percent. Meanwhile, women constitute 34 percent of all attorneys and 44 percent of nonpartners.

The statistics are more bleak among Wall Street law firms, where female partners still make up only 3.9 percent of attorneys, while male partners constitute 17 percent, and 81 percent of all Wall Street law firm partners are men.

At Cravath, only 16 percent, or 14, of the firm’s 86 partners are women, according to Law360’s 2016 Glass Ceiling Report published in April.

Meanwhile, the numbers were even lower at some of its peer firms. Women made up just under 15 percent of partners at Cadwalader Wickersham & Taft LLP and about 14.5 percent of the partners at Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson LLP, and around 12 percent, or 12, of Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP’s 97 partners were women.

And despite gains that have been made in recent years, instances of women leading large law firms are still rare. As of April, there were 18 women in leadership positions at the nation’s 100 largest law firms, the report found.

That’s a big jump from 2014, when Law360 research showed only seven women were chiefs at large U.S. law firms.

Some examples of women now leading large law firms include Jami Wintz McKeon of Morgan Lewis & Bockius LLP, Therese Pritchard of Bryan Cave LLP, Jerry Clements of Locke Lord LLP and Kim Koopersmith of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP. Additions over the past year alone include Tessa Schwartz, firmwide managing partner of Morrison & Foerster LLP, Anne Davis, co-managing partner of Arnold & Porter LLP, Elizabeth ("Betty") O. Temple, chair and CEO of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice LLP, and Madeleine M. McDonough, chair of Shook Hardy & Bacon LLP.

While Cravath is following in the footsteps of these firms, a move such by an “old-line” law firm to put a woman in charge could be the tipping point for its peers that have not yet made the leap, not only because of Cravath’s status in the industry as a trendsetter but also because it could offer firms a competitive advantage, said Janet Markoff, a partner at legal consultancy Major Lindsey & Africa.

Many white shoe firms like Cravath have begun to realize that, while pay may be paramount for recruitment and retaining talent, there are other intangibles that can give firms a leg up in the fierce lateral market — and one of those factors is diversity, Markoff said.

Having more women in leadership roles could lead to increased recruitment and retention of talented female lawyers who see more examples of women who have risen to the top, and realize there truly is room for advancement, Markoff said.

“We have to look at trailblazing women who have succeeded in the, if you will, ‘male’s world,’ where there’s cronyism,” she said. “And if they’ve been able to build a business and be successful and become a leader of such an elite firm, I think that can help some of the younger associates say, ‘She’s done it, maybe there’s a path for me, too.’”

Cravath’s decision to elect a woman as presiding partner sends an important message to existing female lawyers and those thinking of joining the firm, Sandrino said.

“I think that if the goal is to have a diversified partnership and to bring more women and more diverse people into the fold, then I think having a woman at the helm says to everyone, ‘This is possible. This is a viable option for anyone’,” she said.

The message is particularly important in a legal market where participation among women is strong early on in their careers — around 50 percent of law school graduates are women — but peters out at the higher echelons of a world dominated by male leaders, Sandrino said.

“My hope is that it not only sends a message to women associates and partners, but the next African-American associate at Cravath thinks, ‘I could be the chairman of this firm as well,” she added.

In addition to the strong message that it sends to the rest of the industry, Sandrino said, she sees Saeed’s appointment as a smart decision simply because of the attorney is extremely qualified for the position, regardless of her gender.

“She’s just a really good lawyer. As co-chair of the M&A group, the list of clients and deals she’s worked on has been amazing,” Sandrino said.

Saeed, a California native and Harvard Law grad, joined Cravath in 1991 and was elected to the partnership in 1998. She has served as co-head of the M&A practice since 2013 and is expected to continue an active practice in her new role after formally taking over from C. Allen Parker in January.

Saeed has played a pivotal role in a long list of major recent deals. They include the pending $3.8 billion purchase by Comcast Corp. of DreamWorks Animation, Berkshire Hathaway Inc.’s $37.2 billion purchase of aerospace and industrial parts maker Precision Castparts Corp., and Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche’s $8.4 billion buy of biotech InterMune.

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