The Minneapolis law firm of Fredrikson & Byron is one of the best in the nation when it comes to promoting women attorneys to the sought-after rank of partner, a position that often leads to financial rewards and leadership opportunities.
One third of the firm's 155 partners are women, making Fredrikson the 10th-best firm in terms of female advancement and the only firm in the top 25 to call Minnesota home, according to a new survey by the trade journal Law360.
But the Fredrikson firm is an aberration in a legal profession where, on average, women account for just one in five partners in the nation's bigger law firms, despite decades of law school equity between the genders.
"It's not a supply problem. The pool is there. Women are not being promoted as much," said Ann Juergens, a professor at William Mitchell College of Law. "I'm shocked the legal profession hasn't made more progress."
The Law360 survey, which included 380 firms with 50 or more attorneys, mirrored a similar report earlier this year from the National Association of Women Lawyers which found that just 17 percent of women lawyers at the nation's largest 200 firms were partners with an equity stake in the firm's profits.
"Although women in the surveyed law firms have made some inroads, overall the pace of progress remains unacceptably slow as women continue to confront the same barriers that have been identified in the seven prior … national surveys," the report concluded.
Despite the disparity between women lawyers and partner status, law schools continue to attract women students. At William Mitchell, 51 percent of the class that started last fall was female. At the University of Minnesota School of Law, 42 percent of first-year students were female.
Problems faced by women attorneys range from male-dominated leadership positions that determine promotions to perceptions about the inability of women lawyers to bring in new business to the oft-repeated "mommy track" liability stemming from time off to raise a family.
"Women don't 'lean in' and, more importantly, are not perceived as qualified by others, including themselves, even when they have the same résumé as a man," Juergens said.
Leaders at Fredrikson, however, contend that the firm's culture debunks those hurdles that women in other firms may be facing.
"We're an open democracy," said Mary Ranum, chairwoman of the Fredrikson board. "You're either an owner or a potential owner from the day you walk in here. We see each individual as someone we intend to invest in and see them succeed."
Ranum said half of the firm's new hires for more than a decade have been women. She said the firm has women in management as well as women who are big revenue producers and who lead large practice groups. New hires, including women and minorities, are mentored by senior lawyers during the seven-year minimum that it takes to become a partner at Fredrikson. Leave policies were liberalized for men and women for parenting as well as caring for sick family members.
"Senior leaders are committed to the success of lawyers they supervise," Ranum said. "We don't want associate lawyers to get a surprise at year seven. It is not up or out [for partnership]."
Loan Huynh oversees Fredrickson's diversity recruitment and retention program. "Everyone has a belief that they have a role in this firm and that they are not there by title only," she said.
The top 25 "ceiling smashers" on the Law360 survey of women partners ranged from a high of 47.6 percent to 29.5 percent.
Minnesota's two largest law firms — Faegre Baker Daniels and Dorsey & Whitney — said their women-partner ratios were at 25 percent and 20 percent, respectively.
Lawyers are hired out of law school as associates and achieve partner status after a certain length of time and a certain level of performance. It is a significant financial step up for partners who receive an equity partnership but also a significant commitment to the firm.
"A key criteria is the ability, or expected ability, to generate business for the firm," said Herbert Kritzer, a professor at the University of Minnesota School of Law who teaches the business of law. "Shareholders [another name for equity partners] participate in the governance of the firm, including decisions on hiring and promotion to partner."
Non-equity partners have a say in governance issues, but are paid less than equity partners.