All posts by Linda Wayner

The Bar Exam, Football, and Women’s History Month

It’s March, so it is again time to dust off the annual Women’s History Month topics.  Not everyone observes the month-long veneration of female achievement, even if RBG’s birthday party is the perfect way to celebrate.  So let’s instead compare two very similar initiatives adopted by two very different professions to illustrate what law firms and football have in common on the diversity front.

In 2016, a group of partners from various AmLaw 200 law firms and a Stanford Law School student came up with an idea at the 2016 Women in Law Hackathon, a brainstorming competition to produce innovative plans to promote gender equality in the legal profession. The rule mandates that at least thirty percent of a firm’s candidates for leadership positions (defined as firm governance roles, equity partnerships, practice chair positions and seats on compensation committees) be women, attorneys of color, or both.

The rule is named after Arabella Mansfield, the first women to pass the bar exam and qualify to practice law in the United States.  She and her husband both sat for the Iowa bar exam in 1869 at a time when only men were permitted to become attorneys.  She leaned in and took the test anyway. Not only did Mrs. Mansfield pass, she earned a score high enough to impress Iowa’s bar examiners, who stated that her brilliant performance was “the very best rebuke to the [idea] that ladies cannot qualify … to practice law.”

The legal think tank and innovation incubator Diversity Lab organized the 2016 Hackathon event.  They further developed the concept and then called on Big Law to publicly commit to the rule, resulting in 44 law firms stepping forward to embrace the challenge.  After launching the initial pilot program (which, among other things, required the firms to submit to diversity audits), Diversity Lab subsequently produced the Mansfield Rule 2.0, which added LQBTQ candidates to the equation and required that a team putting together a formal “pitch” consider 30% staffing from minority groups and women. The new iteration also requested that participating law firms make appointment and election processes transparent to all lawyers in their firms.  Diversity Lab’s 2018 interim report on participating law firms presented data on how many firms have begun fulfilling the specific Mansfield Rule action items and to what degree.  This is where the fine print gets interesting.

The report reveals that a substantial number of participants had not yet completed the easiest action items, such as formally tracking the diversity of internal leadership pipelines, more than halfway into the pilot. It is troubling that several firms, after committing to the initiative, have struggled to implement its changes.

Perhaps we can look to another profession for some guidance. The Mansfield Rule was inspired by the Rooney Rule, named after Art Rooney, a former owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers and a public champion for inclusion in professional football.  This rule, officially adopted as NFL policy in 2003, requires every team in the league to interview at least one minority candidate for head coach vacancies.  It’s an attempt to address racial inequities in professional football, which is currently 70% African-American among players, but less than 25% African-American at the management level.  The Rooney Rule has since been expanded to include NFL general manager jobs, along with a directive to consider at least one woman for every business front-office position that opens in the league.

Sixteen years after the NFL adopted the Rooney Rule, opinions are mixed as to its success thus far. There is general agreement that the Rooney Rule was an important, albeit small, institutional step in the right direction. There are also concerns that the policy has become a bureaucratic speed bump, obeyed in practice but ignored in spirit.

Similarly in the legal world, the data confirms what most of us know anecdotally: women working in Big Law, especially those aiming for partner, are far more likely to land in niche practice groups, such as education, family law, health care, immigration and employment.  Like the NFL shunting black coaches toward defensive jobs, women have gravitated, or have been nudged, toward practice areas that earn less money.  The reasons for selecting the less profitable specialties are varied and legitimate: higher odds of promotion, better work-life balance, and the desire to have a critical mass of female colleagues. Areas such as banking, M&A, and litigation have comparatively fewer female lawyers and a much smaller percentage of them achieve partnership.

The Mansfield Rule has not yet revolutionized the practice of law for women, but it is gaining traction and has real potential to move the needle toward progress. Thank you, Mrs. Mansfield, and happy Women’s History Month.

If your firm is looking for strategic guidance on diversity and inclusion within the legal profession, feel free to contact me at or on LinkedIn. I am also delighted to chat with diverse attorneys about career development and your experiences in the legal world.



5 Diversity Action Items for Law Firms

The perennial debate on diversity within the legal profession emerged again recently when over one 170 general counsels signed an open ultimatum to the Big Law community:  show us statistical progress or prepare for extinction.  Law firms no longer have the luxury of asking why they should propel women, attorneys of color, and LGBTQ+ lawyers toward success.  It is presumed every sophisticated business leader has read the research and understands the underlying business rational and moral imperative.  As a former Big Law associate, minority bar association leader, and diversity professional, I offer here five ideas for law firms that are sincerely ready to improve.  To preface, nothing here is particularly revolutionary. These are just a few common-sense tips to help move your firm beyond its demographic plateaus, and enhance your firm’s prospects for success.

1) Identify a specific diversity narrative.  Just about every law firm website includes boilerplate language about the organization’s commitment to diversity. Discerning candidates know to probe beyond marketing puffery.  What success has your organization enjoyed with women, attorneys of color, or the LGBT legal community? Perhaps your firm goes above and beyond to support mothers on the partnership track.  Or, does your firm encourage associates to become affinity bar association leaders by granting billable credit for those activities?  A personalized narrative (with facts to back it up) tells a much more compelling story than generic platitudes. If, after deep searching, there is nothing unique about your firm’s diversity strategy, it may be time to consider whether your firm’s ideological commitment is translating into measurable positive impact.

2) Broaden your hiring specifications. If you take away anything from this article, let it be this: It is numerically impossible to improve diversity at law firms if hiring partners fail to consider strong candidates from a wide variety of law schools. The Law School Admissions Council bluntly states that the current population of law school students across our country does not yet reflect societal demographics.  We also know that racial minorities are far more likely to incur staggering law school debt, so they quite reasonably consider financial aid just as important as a law school’s rank (if not more so).  If minority students are economically induced to attend second and third tier schools, and we know there are insufficient diverse law students nationwide to start with, law firms cannot bypass all but fourteen schools and realistically improve diversity.  Recruiters who tell you otherwise are either inexperienced in the diversity space, or unwilling to break from antiquated habits.

3) Get serious about employee retention. Imagine a partner reading a client email that says, “I am considering alternative firms that will be more responsive to my particular needs.”  Most partners would immediately jump to address specific problems before that client goes elsewhere.  Now, instead of a client, picture a diverse mid-level associate articulating the identical statement to that same partner.  How many rainmakers and practice group leaders would go to the same lengths to keep that associate? If firms want to keep diverse associates as potential long-term leaders, they must treat them as important assets because that is what they are.  And remember, the savvy diverse candidates you are (or should be) courting will take a hard look at your firm’s mid-level and senior associate ranks as a predictor of their own prospects for success. Retention begets recruitment.

4) Call the bosses to action.  Law firm diversity efforts often fall disproportionately on the shoulders of diverse associates.   How many of your law firm partners (diverse and non-diverse) serve on the board of a national affinity bar association? Are any regularly investing their time (in addition to their checkbook) with the non-profits and law schools devoted to innovative diversity programming?  I know first-hand that groups such as the Hispanic National Bar Association, the Institute for Legal Inclusion in the Legal Profession, and Pipeline to Practice (whose board I recently joined) all welcome sincere attention from law firm leaders.  Not only would such efforts broadcast a genuine interest in diversity within the profession, they have a decent shot at improving cultural competence among leaders within your organization.  

5) Stop Staring Inward.  I would wager my last paycheck that after last month’s general counsel letter, law firms across the nation began convening internal Diversity Committee meetings to (1) identify which of their clients signed the letter; and (2) formulate a public relations response to anxiously highlight their own progress on the diversity front.  Don Prophete of Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete decided to publicly respond, not on behalf of his firm, but to offer his own testimony as the first black lawyer to become a name partner at an AmLaw 250 firm.  He instantly became the most credible voice on this topic by taking a risk and engaging candidly in the national conversation. Creating internal task forces and subcommittees will not yield this type of powerful impact. Diversifying the legal profession literally requires changing the face of your workforce, so looking beyond your firm for advice and expertise is essential.

If your firm is looking for strategic guidance on diversity and inclusion within the legal profession, feel free to contact me at or on LinkedIn. I am also delighted to chat with diverse attorneys about career development and their experiences in the law firm world.