The start of a new decade is a good time to assess whether the legal industry at large has made progress facilitating the professional success of women lawyers. Women, especially women of color, remain underrepresented in the legal field despite high graduation rates from law schools, and they are even less represented in the upper echelons of law firms, organizations, and the bench. Nicole Hittner, who co-chairs Ballard Women, Ballard Spahr’s business resource group for women attorneys, shared her thoughts on women and the law.

According to the National Association of Women Lawyers, only 20 percent of AmLaw 200 equity partners are women. With over 50 percent of law graduates in the past 20 years identifying as women, how do you explain this disparity?

Nicole Hittner: I think, generally speaking, that programs like affinity groups for female lawyers have been helpful and are necessary, but, clearly, they haven’t completely solved the issue of gender disparity. The question is, what could and should we be doing to move the ball forward? The legal industry needs to maintain its focus on effective means to attract, retain, and advance women. Mentorship and sponsorship programs, diversity training, implicit bias training, and expressions of formal commitment by firms to the advancement of women seem to be impactful. Ballard Spahr has had some success with those strategies—28 percent of our partners are women—but there’s plenty more work to be done.

What are some barriers that women still face in the legal industry?
Hittner: Deborah Rhode of the Stanford Center on the Legal Profession has said that women in the legal profession face three main obstacles: sexual stereotypes, inflexible workplace structures, and inadequate access to mentoring. Most other studies and surveys seem to come up with some variation of the same themes. The good news is that overt sexism is less widespread than it once was, but the real progress will be made when implicit biases are recognized and addressed. We’ve also made progress in the legal industry with respect to flexibility through the use of technology. While it is easier than ever to stay connected, the very real remaining issue is the perception, still held by some more seasoned attorneys, about the career commitment of their colleagues who are embracing a flexible (and sometimes physically remote) workstyle. For me personally, access to mentoring is probably the biggest game changer. I believe it is critically important for women to have both formal and informal mentors who can help them navigate a trail that is still being blazed. Valuable mentorship can come from men or women, but successful careers are built on thoughtful guidance as much as determination.

What do legal employers need to do to attract, retain, and advance women?
Hittner: That’s a complex question that we, as an industry, are still trying to answer. What I’ve seen in my own career is that a multifaceted approach has the most impact. Through programming, mentoring, and sponsorship, we can work to improve the professional experience and bolster the trajectory of women lawyers. We can advance women into key participation and leadership roles, both inside and outside any given firm. No one tactic will work for everyone, so the goal has to be to offer multiple avenues for connection, growth, and success.

While no one has figured out the perfect solution yet, I believe if we keep genuinely committing to progress, we’ll keep improving. Some of the measures you mentioned sound harder to implement and measure, because they’re “softer,” so to speak.
Hittner: That’s a fair observation, but there’s evidence that these measures are moving the needle which makes them worth the investment. Ballard Spahr has put real money to work investing in women. For example, we have implemented a sponsorship program for all diverse lawyers and have expanded our paid parental leave to 16 full weeks for attorneys who are new parents. Tangible commitment like that has helped us do a little better than the national average. I also think it’s worth noting that a few elements of what we just touched on are sometimes considered facets of allyship. That’s a concept relevant not only to the success of women attorneys at law firms but also to other diverse and traditionally underrepresented groups.

Broadly speaking, what does allyship mean, and why do you think it’s useful?
Hittner: One definition that has been embraced is that it’s the long-term process of building and maintaining trust, consistency, and accountability with individuals and groups that have been underrepresented. The successful practice of allyship results in people feeling valued, supported, and respected. Allyship, like sponsorship, is an ongoing process. It isn’t a discrete task with a definitive end. If an organization like a law firm invests in that type of commitment, formerly underrepresented people, including women in the legal profession, will feel more supported and be more successful. The research has borne out that diversity of perspectives and backgrounds in the workplace leads to better business outcomes. Allyship helps us maintain that diversity.

How can attorneys and other professionals at law firms be good allies, then?
Hittner: It would be impossible to create a finite list of all the ways to be a good ally or sponsor, but as a starting point: be willing to listen thoughtfully; scrutinize your own implicit biases; and examine how you can support those around you. Additionally, it is key that those who do not experience the same bias speak up when they see bias play out in front of them. Men should speak up when they see discrimination against women and nonbinary individuals, white people should speak up when they see discrimination against people of color, and so on. This removes the burden from the disenfranchised person from constantly having to carry the torch on diversity issues. There are many ways, both formally and informally, that you can use your success to benefit others. Another element is making sure appropriate credit is given. When people feel equally valued, and an important part of the team, it’s working. We all have to be willing to commit to ongoing improvement and commitment to the entire team.

Nicole Hittner
Nicole Hittner, a business and transactions partner at Ballard Spahr, is co-chair of Ballard Women, Ballard Spahr’s business resource group for female attorneys. She also is the cofounder of Women in Private Equity, a networking group for women in the private equity industry.