A way forward for women in IP
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A way forward for women in IP

Eileen McDermott examines why the growing numbers of women enrolling in law schools around the world have yet to be reflected in the top positions at law firms and companies

According to a 2009 survey conducted by the National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL) and The NAWL Foundation, 99% of US law firms reported that their highest paid lawyer was a man.

The same survey found that 92% of managing partners at US firms were male. And yet, 44% of US law students in the 2008-2009 class were women, and about 40% of individuals at INTA member companies are female. So why aren’t more of these women visible at the top?

One popular theory is that it is just a matter of time before all of those female law students work their way up. But statistics belie this suggestion. Another NAWL study found that, although women have been graduating from law schools at levels of 40% or higher since 1985 and entering private law firms at about the same rate as men, the number of women reaching partnership has increased by only 3% in the past decade.

This disparity is traditionally attributed to the so-called work/life balance that many women strive to achieve. But-while it is undeniable that women often choose to have children and leave the workplace or work part-time, invariably making it harder to reach the highest positions-Odette Gourley of Corrs Chambers Westgarth in Sydney says that this is not the full picture.

“I’ve been in IP and trademarks a long time and I’m continually inspired by the fabulous women we have in our profession, but I do wish more of them would stay at the highest levels,” says Gourley, who is a partner at her firm.

Gourley conceived of today’s session CM21: “Women in Trademarks: Maximizing Your Career Success,” because she believes there are other factors contributing to the low numbers of women at the top which may not be as apparent. The session will focus on practical solutions for women of all ages who are seeking to advance to leading positions at law firms and companies. “Everyone must make personal choices, but I’d like to encourage more women to stay on and move up,” says Gourley.

To that end, Gourley has planned a panel comprised of two speakers who have overcome the various challenges for women in law to go the full distance in their professions. Dale Cendali of Kirkland & Ellis and Nadine Flynn of The Colgate-Palmolive Company will join Gourley in delivering proactive solutions.

Toot your horn

Cendali, a partner, says that one of the key steps in getting to the top is making sure that someone knows how hard you’ve been working. “First, you have to keep building up experience and your resume so that there’s something someone would want to hire you for,” she says. “But the next step is letting someone outside of your parents know about it.”

In addition to getting out of the office to lecture and do pro bono work, Cendali says this means “tooting your own horn”-a concept with which many women may not feel at ease. “Women tend to be less comfortable tooting their own horns, and in an environment where others aren’t hesitant to do so, that can be bad,” says Cendali.

Cendali recalls an example given at a seminar she attended in which one of the main reasons cited for salary gaps between male and female accounting executives at a major accounting firm was that women consistently ranked their performance lower than men in annual self-evaluations. “The women didn’t want to be presumptuous, while the men didn’t have those reservations,” said Cendali.

Gourley agrees, and adds that women can also be loath to network aggressively and foster crucial relationships with clients. She recalls one instance in which two junior partners had to entertain a client at the office for the day.

“The woman was senior to the man, but every time something needed to be done, she would jump up and do it, while the man was getting on famously with the client. As the senior person in the room, she should have been the one [talking with the client],” says Gourley.

Flynn, who is Vice President, Global Legal at Colgate-Palmolive, says that women who are in senior positions need to be aware of the challenges facing junior women and advocate for them. “Women need to support women,” says Flynn. “If more women could get to higher levels in the head departments at companies, we might have more women [in higher positions] at law firms.”

Choose wisely

Gourley says that women might also benefit from making hard and fast choices about their career, rather than trying to have it all. When women work part-time, they often choose to narrow their focus to one or two areas of practice, which could keep them from broadening their skill base, or they might soon find themselves burnt out by the task of juggling work and family. “Working part-time comes with heavy burdens for women,” says Gourley.

In some cases, says Gourley, taking a hiatus to raise children before returning to the work force full-time might serve women better than working part-time throughout that period. You can’t have everything in life—it’s ok to make choices about what you want,” she adds.

But that decision could backfire if you don’t have strong enough ties at a firm or company, says Flynn: “It might be better in some cases to take time off and then come back, but it’s very hard to get your foot back in the door if you do that. It’s very rare.”

In Flynn’s case, she made the choice to leave private practice and take a position with a company, where she says there is often a better chance of maintaining work-life balance. “One of my primary reasons for going in-house was because I loved what I did, but I didn’t want to do it 24 hours a day,” she says. “You have to chart your own course and figure out a way to make it work.”

The “D” word

Despite the proactive approach of today’s session, there is no denying that women are still working against the backdrop of discrimination. “Having attended many INTA meetings over the years, I’ve had many women confess that they’ve been discriminated against and that they feel they’ve not had the same opportunities as others,” says Cendali.

But, rather than lament this fact, Cendali would like the session to remain practical and informative. “My focus will be on what female lawyers of any age can do to make people want to hire them—it’s a very practical and optimistic look at what a woman can do to build her career.”

So, while gender discrimination is certainly still common and the road to the top consequently that much more difficult for women lawyers, Gourley hopes that today’s session will provide women with concrete tips to counter those challenges. “There are lots of challenges of course,” says Gourley. “The objective of the session is to motivate and inspire.”

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