Blog Post

Best Law Firms for Women & Diversity: The DEI Best Practices Behind the Numbers

By Karen Kaplowitz
June 1, 2023

For 16 years, the Seramount Best Law Firms for Women Initiative has provided law firms with a data-based platform to gather and analyze their progress in gender diversity as well as the family-friendly benefits offered. This year, Seramount expanded the survey beyond gender to other underrepresented groups and renamed it the Best Law Firms for Women & Diversity. Firms submitted extensive data as of the end of 2022 in response to a broad and detailed survey on DEI policies, practices, and results. Each participating law firm then received a scorecard, which ranks their progress against other applicant firms in four areas: gender representation, racial and ethnic representation, benefits and career flexibility, and overall best practices. Based on these results, Seramount named the top 50 ranked law firms to the 2023 list of the Best Law Firms for Women & Diversity.

The 2023 survey results answered one major question: Would law firms maintain their DEI commitments given increased economic pressure, widely reported lower profitability, and many layoffs? Seramount’s survey results show that the winning law firms have continued their DEI commitments with modest progress in the numbers of women and other underrepresented lawyers. The ranks of women lawyers and lawyers of color in the firms on the list increased, just under 1 percent. The percentage of women equity partners increased just over 1 percent, to 27 percent.

Notably, even with economic challenges, the survey data showed that law firms on the list offered enhanced benefits across the board. Firms on the list increased the average fully paid gender-neutral parental leave they offered associates to 17 weeks and equity partners to 20 weeks, although many give equity partners unlimited parental leave. Seramount also measures utilization rates of parental leave to assess whether firm culture discourages usage. Fathers in the winning firms are taking more parental leave across all employee groups but still take less time than mothers. The winning firms increased many other childcare benefits, including subsidized everyday childcare (90 percent) and backup childcare (84 percent).

Going Beyond the Numbers

Seramount’s objective, data-driven process enables us to help participants benchmark themselves against other firms on the list, including groups of designated peer firms.

Seramount also invited winning firms to give us a look behind the numbers by sharing the DEI programs and best practices to which they attribute their sustained success. “Seramount is proud to continue to be an essential partner in the DEI journeys of the law firms that participated in the 2023 Best Law Initiative,” said Subha Barry, President of Seramount. 

When we look behind the numbers to the programs and policies of which firms are most proud, we find that winning firms are focused on four key things:

  • Culture: embedding DEI in their firm cultures
  • Connection: extending DEI to more underrepresented groups
  • Community: aligning their firm’s DEI commitments with their communities
  • Leadership: achieving more seats at the table and professional development

Embedding DEI in Firm Culture

When asked to identify the strategies of which they are most proud, many of the winning firms emphasized the importance of embedding DEI in the fabric of their firms’ cultures.

Littler, a leading labor and employment law firm led by Managing Director and President Erin Webber, on the list for fourteen years and ranked among the top five law firms on the 2023 list, is a prime example. “At Littler, we are committed to providing a culture where everyone can succeed and embrace their full potential. Through our numerous inclusion, equity, and diversity programs and initiatives, including the Career Advocacy Program and SOAR, we have seen measurable results. Our intentional programming is designed to increase opportunities that will help diverse attorneys take the steps they need to advance, and we are proud to report that over the past five years, women and ethnically diverse attorneys have represented on average 70 percent and up to 79 percent of each new shareholder class,” said Webber.

Joi Bourgeois, Global Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusionof Kirkland & Ellis, one of the highest-profile law firms in the world, which has been on the Best Law list thirteen times, also stresses the intersection of the firm’s culture and DEI: “Unlike most other law firms, Kirkland has a ‘billing team’ model under which multiple lawyers—not just one origination partner—receive credit for revenue generated by client matters. This structure reflects Kirkland’s long-standing recognition that outstanding client service and long-term relationships are a product of teamwork and the contributions of multiple lawyers who add meaningful value for the client. The billing team’s model is inclusive by definition. It provides access to opportunity and acknowledges diverse contributions from all our attorneys, especially women of color and LGBTQ+ leaders and aspiring leaders.”

Neal, Gerber & Eisenberg, a Chicago firm on the list nine times, emphasizes pride that its leadership is committed to thinking about DEI in every aspect of law-firm life. According to Managing Partner Robert Gerber: “The firm can engage in tactical efforts to be more diverse and inclusive, but its strategy and commitment must come from the top to be effective and enduring. Our leaders have been the difference for us. ‘DEI’ is a standing agenda item at every regular Executive Committee meeting, and that forces our leadership to keep it at the nexus of every decision and to discuss and work through challenging issues.” Among the firm’s notable achievements: 100 percent of promotions to equity partner and 50 percent of promotions to income partner were women, and 75 percent of the firm’s first-year associate class were people from underrepresented groups, with 50 percent being women.

Extending DEI to More Underrepresented Groups

Many factors, including the 2020 murder of George Floyd, have caused firms to heighten their focus on other underrepresented lawyers, especially people of color. Several firms emphasized that they have become more “intentional” in providing support to a wider array of underrepresented lawyers.

Blank Rome, on the list for seven years, expanded programming in 2022 for women of color with its BR Advance leadership development program, a multipronged program designed to develop existing, new, and emerging leaders at the firm while addressing the needs and intersectional challenges of women of color in the legal industry. Director of Diversity & Inclusion Krystal Studavent Ramsey says: “We, as women of color, continue to be one of the most underrepresented and undervalued constituencies in the legal industry, despite ongoing efforts to shift from the status quo. We were intentional about creating a space and community where women of color are celebrated, elevated, and appreciated for the value that we bring to the firm and to the industry.” The program kicked off with a retreat where attendees engaged in intimate conversations about branding, problem solving, and effective leadership in a hybrid world. Studavent Ramsey shared that since the retreat, some participants have landed new leadership positions and engaged in cross-selling resulting in new business opportunities, while others have been more deliberate about strengthening their brand.

Covington, on the list for the seventh year, launched its inaugural Covington Connected: Lawyers Diversity Summit, which brought together 270+ lawyers who are people of color and/or LGBTQ+ from across its global offices. Attendees reaffirmed existing bonds with colleagues and cultivated new ones through candid conversations and shared reflections. Covington reports that elements of the Summit experience resulted in several significant improvements to DEI at the firm, including increased collaboration between affinity groups, the hiring of a new DEI team member focused solely on providing affinity group support, and DEI goals being included in practice group strategic plans. The Summit was well received. As one attendee elaborated: “This event has been a validation of my choice to lateral to Covington… . After the isolation of the pandemic, the Summit provided structured, intentional activities and offered all of us the time and intentionality to connect. The Summit has reenergized and rejuvenated my passion for legal practice and inspired me to continue to invest in the community at Covington.” 

Katten, on the list for the fourteenth year,runstheKattalyst Sponsorship Program, which supports historically underrepresented attorneys by pairing them with more experienced partners and firm leaders as their “sponsors” to gain the experience, skills, and connections necessary to succeed in their careers. Sponsors use their experience, influence, and networks to guide their protégés’ careers and expand access to business development and client-facing opportunities. Past protégés have been elevated to partners, served on firm committees, taken on firm leadership roles, and become sponsors themselves. “Our Kattalyst sponsorship program empowers attorneys to unlock their full potential, overcome challenges, and achieve their career goals,” said Kenya Woodruff, National Chair of Katten’sWomen’s Leadership Forum. 

Aligning Law Firms with Their Communities

Firms have also created more alignment between their firms and their communities. 

In 2020, McDermott, Will & Emery, on the list eleven years, launched McDermott Rise. The firm explains that it created McDermott Rise because the firm is committed to taking an active role to combat inequality and promote fairness while helping to bridge the gap for Black entrepreneurs. Through this program, the firm provides a set of free legal and business services to 20 Black founders and other entrepreneurs of color to help them successfully launch and scale their endeavors. Since 2020, the firm has worked for dozens of early-stage and emerging companies that have an innovative plan and are solving an important problem. McDermott Rise is led by a dedicated global team of McDermott lawyers and staff professionals.

Taft, a national firm based in the Midwest, on the list for the third time, is expanding its pipeline of diverse talent to enhance its service to clients. “Taft is committed to creating an inclusive culture of individuals from diverse backgrounds. This commitment allows us to fulfill our mission of serving our clients to the highest standards of professional excellence,” said Taft Chief Diversity Officer Adrian Thompson. Each year, Taft awards eight fellowships to law students who are members of historically underrepresented ethnic and/or racial minority groups. Fellows receive paid summer associate positions in one of the firm’s offices, work on client matters, and have several Taft mentors. Assuming satisfactory performance, fellows can return as second-year summer associates (and are awarded a signing bonus if they return).

Latham & Watkins, a global giant, on the list for the fifteenth year, takes the idea of the importance of DEI in serving its community to a global level. Kirsten Jackson, Partner and Diversity Leadership Committee Vice Chair, explained that the Latham philosophy is Belong As You Are. “We are embedding diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) as a distinguishing feature of our culture and using our global platform to tackle these issues in service of the legal community, the communities in which we live and work, and our clients. Our work includes advancing women and other individuals from underrepresented backgrounds in the workplace through various means, such as our two Women’s Leadership Academies and our Diversity Leadership Academy, our Financial Analysis Program for female in-house lawyers, and our many Affinity Groups and internal networks.”

Leadership: More seats at the table and professional development

For many firms, the best practices behind the numbers that landed the firms on the list relate to leadership and professional development. 

For example, Seyfarth, a global firm with 17 offices, on the list for twelve years, emphasizes that Inclusive Leadership training is a key strategy for fostering Seyfarth’s culture of belonging and inclusion. “Seyfarth is intentional about equipping leaders with inclusion competencies, accountability, and behavior change skills to ensure inclusive behavior is modeled for everyone,” said partner Ellen McLaughlin, Co-chair of Seyfarth Women’s Network. The firm’s efforts that start at the top have had tangible results within its leadership as well. The firm recently elected its first woman Chair and Managing Partner, Lorie E. Almon. Seyfarth’s seven-member Executive Committee is comprised of three women: one Latina, two Black, and two LGBTQ+ attorneys. And women hold office management leadership positions in six US offices.

Similarly, Finnegan, a global IP firm on the list for thirteen years, focuses on recruitment and retention, ensuring that diverse attorneys see a path at the firm to partnership and management positions. This is reflected in the firm’s adoption of the Mansfield Rule, which pledges that women, minorities, and LGBTQ+ attorneys will make up at least 30 percent of candidates for leadership positions. Managing Partner Erika Arner states: “Finnegan has a history of promoting diverse talent to leadership positions. Our inclusive culture has been integral to the success in retaining talent across the attorneys and business professionals at the firm.” Currently, 58 percent of the firm’s Management & Compensation Committees are diverse, having a direct impact on compensation decisions. Eighty percent of the firm’s Partnership Admission/Elevation Review Committee members are diverse, having a direct impact on promotional decision-making.

First-time winner Cozen O’Connor,an international firm whose roots are in Philadelphia, also emphasized the importance of collaboration and allyship. As Women’s Initiative Chair Sarah D. Schlossberg shared: “Cozen O’Connor is incredibly proud of its Women’s Initiative. The Women’s Initiative has provided increased opportunities for collaboration and connection by identifying ambassadors in each office and encouraging them to spearhead client events, develop programming, organize social activities, welcome new attorneys, and support attorneys—especially those returning from leave. In addition, the Women’s Initiative has instituted monthly programming on a variety of topics. Most of the programming is inclusive of all genders to circumvent women’s voices getting stuck in echo chambers and to educate everyone on important issues, strengthen relationships, and develop allies.”

Mintz,a national firm with Boston roots, on the list for the fourth year, has also been intentional about the development of its women. The firm is focused on growing its numbers more generally, as well as increasing women’s representation in leadership. Consequently, on average over the past three years, more than 64 percent of the firm’s summer associates and more than 50 percent of all newly elevated partners are women. Women also comprise 35 percent of Mintz’s executive committee and 40 percent of its Compensation Committee. The firm also focuses on supporting women more broadly by hosting several professional development seminars and recently affirmed its support of those suffering fertility losses (miscarriages, failed surrogacy, etc.) by enacting an enhanced bereavement leave policy.

Proskauer, a global firm with more than 800 lawyers, on the list for the second year, states that fostering engagement, building connections, and implementing unique professional development are integral to Proskauer’s talent management strategy. The firm’s Women’s Sponsorship Program (WSP) does just that by championing high-performing women associates in the early years of their practice and ensuring access to resources that support their professional development. Brianna Reed, an associate in Proskauer’s Tax Department who participated in WSP in 2021, said of its impact: “While I had to push myself to open up during my experience with the Women’s Sponsorship Program, I am still seeing positive effects. Not only did I receive advice that gave me the confidence to grow in my career, but I also found inspiration to keep paying it forward.” The program, which launched in 2014, pairs mid- and senior-level lawyers with partner-level “sponsors” whose role is to support and champion their career development and growth. Its curriculum focuses on areas such as client relationship management, new business development, and leadership and includes bespoke one-on-one coaching. Since its inception, approximately 120 women associates have participated, and 60 senior partners have served as sponsors.

“Seramount continues to shine a spotlight on the sustained DEI commitments and best practices that have enabled these firms to make the Seramount 2023 list of the Best Law Firms for Women & Diversity,” said Barry. “We look forward to celebrating the success of the 50 Best Law Firms at Seramount’s Gala Awards Dinner on October 18, 2023, along with the many leading companies who use Seramount’s surveys to measure their DEI results and hold themselves accountable. Congratulations, one and all!”

Karen Kaplowitz, a longtime advocate for women in the legal profession, has been a senior advisor to the Seramount Best Law Firms for Women & Diversity Initiative since 2016. Kaplowitz, a business development strategist and coach, has been named one of Lawdragon’s Global 100 Leaders in Legal Strategy and Consulting since 2018. 

About the Author

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Karen Kaplowitz
The New Ellis Group