Faith Gay from American law firm Selendy & Gay
Faith Gay, partner at Selendy & Gay: she and her fellow co-founders wanted to create a 'different kind of firm '

When the American Bar Association took its first snapshot of female representation in the legal profession nearly two decades ago, it found that only 15 per cent of law firm partners and just over 40 per cent of associate lawyers were women.

There was already a pressing sense that the lack of women must be addressed. The hope was that those associates would, in years to come, use initiatives such as mentoring, women’s networks or flexible working to climb the career ladder to a place at the partners’ table.

But the ABA’s 2019 study reveals that women now represent just over 22 per cent of all partners and 19 per cent of equity partners (a category that was not measured nearly two decades ago).

“Women have been attending graduate law school in almost equal numbers to men for the past 20 years — we’re certainly not seeing that in terms of senior representation [of women at law firms],” says Anna Brown, director of global diversity and inclusion at Baker McKenzie.

Her firm’s novel way of tackling this is setting a target of 40 per cent male, 40 per cent female and 20 per cent “flexible” (which includes non binary, male or female) representation at key levels of the firm by 2025. It is the first big firm globally to introduce such targets.

The overall slow rate of progress, however, highlights the fact that new answers are needed. It explains why many in the sector are looking for fresh ways to encourage greater diversity. Here are three:

The funder: Burford Capital

In October 2018, Burford Capital launched a $50m fund to offer financing for litigation brought by female lawyers or led by firms owned by women. The terms for the Equity Project were the same as Burford’s general offering, which pre-funds legal action — litigation finance — and takes a share of proceeds from successful cases. The usual $2m minimum threshold was waived to give women a chance to bring smaller cases.

Aviva Will, a senior managing director at Burford, says the dedicated fund has led to a significant number of women coming forward.

The idea for the fund followed a review of Burford’s own data, she says. “Less than 5 per cent of the cases we looked at were coming from women lawyers,” she says. “[Now] women are stepping up, we’re giving them a reason to put themselves forward.”

By September this year, Burford had received 42 inquiries about the Equity Project, with $66m in fees and expenses attached. She declines to disclose how many of these cases have been funded.

Nicole Galli, founder and managing partner at ND Galli, a boutique law firm, champions the Equity Project and tries to raise awareness of it among lawyers. She herself has yet to take a case to the fund but describes it as “a game changer” for women’s advancement, especially as traditional efforts to address law firm diversity can result in women advancing but away from major revenue-producing roles.

Research from the National Association of Women Lawyers shows that most firms have no women among their top 10 revenue producers.

“The real power in law firms comes from having a [client] book, whether we like it or not,” says Ms Galli. She adds that women who are big revenue producers can then earn their places on key management committees, which can in turn drive broader change.

The start-up: Selendy & Gay

Faith Gay, a founding partner at Selendy & Gay, is another trailblazer. In 2018, she and 10 colleagues left Quinn Emanuel, the world’s biggest business litigation and arbitration practice, to create a “different kind of firm”. Most of the equity of Selendy & Gay is held by six women who share the partnership table with seven men.

The firm keeps down staff turnover by immersing new associates in an apprenticeship programme that gives them early courtroom experience, extensive coaching and business development. Ms Gay says: “We loved our time [at Quinn Emanuel]. We grew as lawyers there [but] we really wanted to start a firm, [to] form a civilisation with our own values.” She adds that while it was “possible” for big law firms to create an environment in which women thrive, “it takes longer because cultures are ossified”.

The new firm’s diversity has been well received both by clients, which want to be served by a range of people, and with juries, which are often drawn from more diverse pools. “We’re busier than we can deal with,” she says of the firm, which has grown to 13 partners, 40 associates and a staff of more than 100.

The academic collaboration: DLA Piper

Global law firm DLA Piper has taken a novel approach to diversity, working with NYU professor Kenji Yoshino to offer actor-led workshops that help reset people’s perceptions of gender and potential biases.

Roger Meltzer, global co-chairman, says the workshops were a result of the idea that traditional bias training had “seen its day” and should be replaced with something “innovative and disruptive”.

1,200 Number of lawyers who have taken part since mid-2017 in workshops devised by NYU

Prof Yoshino’s sessions use professional actors to push lawyers to view troubling situations “from a little bit of a distance”. Mr Meltzer says the research at NYU offered “real social scientific data” that workshops were effective and this appealed to lawyers’ love of data. In addition, the workshops helped create a culture where people could be their “authentic selves”.

Since the project began in mid 2017, some 1,200 lawyers have taken part.

Mr Meltzer says DLA Piper’s “seven-figure commitment” will be maintained annually because the material is constantly evolving and the firm has gained “enormous benefits”.

As well as producing happier and better-performing employees who stay longer, Mr Meltzer says the programme is “an extremely important part of our enhancement of our brand equity”. He adds: “There is no question that people are more likely to want to at least explore the possibility of working at DLA Piper because of our commitment to this.”

The tables below rank law firms and in-house legal teams for the FT Innovative Lawyers North America awards.

Talent, Strategy and Changing Behaviours
Rank Law firm Description Originality Leadership Impact Total
STANDOUT McGuireWoods Took an inclusive and transparent approach to its five-year strategic plan, sharing it with every member of staff. The plan is building engagement among staff while being open about the difficult choices the firm has to make. Commended: Jon Harmon 8 8 7 23
HIGHLY COMMENDED McGuireWoods The company used historical data to develop a recruitment model that removes personal bias in interviews and is better at selecting the candidates that are likely to succeed.  8 8 6 22
HIGHLY COMMENDED Reed Smith The company invested in staff retention with a “ramp-up, ramp-down” scheme. This allowed employees the flexibility to increase or decrease their workload gradually before or after extended periods of leave. 7 8 7 22
HIGHLY COMMENDED Weil, Gotshal & Manges The Tower initiative run by Weil, Gotshal & Manges increases the involvement of women in business development and client relationships and has led to nearly 70 per cent more client pitches by female partners over four years.  7 8 7 22
HIGHLY COMMENDED Baker McKenzie A workshop on seeding new career paths was the result of a collaboration between Baker McKenzie and Toronto university academics. It encouraged students to work with in-house clients to try to solve business challenges. 7 8 6 21
HIGHLY COMMENDED Eversheds Sutherland Faced with a high failure rate for lateral hires, or experienced lawyers brought in from a similar position at a different law firm, the firm developed an integration programme that includes a central portal for knowledge and task management as well as an allocated partner.  7 7 7 21
HIGHLY COMMENDED Gowling WLG The mental health and wellbeing strategy at Gowling WLG comprises a seven-point plan for leaders, extended health insurance and mental health first aid training. 6 7 8 21

CareConnect is a comprehensive employee support service that integrates counselling, coaching, firm resources and work/life assistance, which Latham & Watkins developed in collaboration with mental health provider Baltimore-based BHS. The scheme was rolled out globally in May 2019.

7 8 6 21
COMMENDED Hogan Lovells Established a careers service for current and former Hogan Lovells lawyers, with a jobs board and confidential counselling involving a former partner. 6 7 7 20
COMMENDED Morgan, Lewis & Bockius Lawyers at the firm are encouraged to participate in activities centred on wellbeing. The company uses positive psychology in its ML Well mental health and wellbeing scheme. The firm’s health benefits also cover virtual counselling. Commended: Krista Logelin 6 7 7 20
COMMENDED Paul Hastings Piloted an apprenticeship-style programme for law school graduates who are not in traditional associate roles. This provided experience in a range of practice areas and additional training in technology and knowledge management. 7 8 5 20
COMMENDED Shearman & Sterling Implemented MyDevelopment in June 2019. The Shearman & Sterling human resources platform allows employees to receive feedback on their performance at any time and includes behaviours and actions they should start, stop or continue.  6 8 6 20
COMMENDED Thompson Hine Mandatory budgeting has been put in place for nine of Thompson Hine’s 16 practice groups. Clients see a digital workplan that includes any changes to costs and an explanation for amendments. 6 7 7 20
COMMENDED WilmerHale WilmerHale worked with Aurora North, a software provider, to find a way to list and manage processes relating to clients' outside counsel guidelines. The firm has cut administrative time to speed up work for clients. 7 7 6 20
Talent, Strategy and Changing Behaviours (in-house)
Rank In-house legal team Description Originality Leadership Impact Total
STANDOUT Slack Technologies The legal team at Slack uses the company's workplace messaging service to record ideas that could result in new intellectual property. When someone in the business shares a potentially patentable idea, a colleague can react with a lightbulb emoji. The message is then shared with external counsel who can take steps to protect the IP. The process has contributed to more IP being created. 9 8 7 24
HIGHLY COMMENDED Twitter Twitter's lawyers introduced an initiative to raise awareness of data and privacy in the wider business. Volunteers who sign up to promote such questions in their team receive training and part of their working time is devoted to the topic. Employees are now more willing to raise a concern with the legal team. 7 8 8 23
HIGHLY COMMENDED Argo AI In-house lawyers advised Argo AI, the autonomous vehicle start-up, on the launch of the Argo AI Center for Autonomous Vehicle Research, a project run in partnership with Carnegie Mellon University, Pennsylvania. They overcame complex intellectual property challenges around ownership of the research. The centre also provides a stream of graduates for the business.  7 9 6 22
COMMENDED eBay Collaborated with Gonzaga University and patent law firm SBMC, both of Spokane, Washington, to provide internships for diverse first-year law students in technology and intellectual property law. The company has also worked with other tech and law firms to provide work experience for law students from disadvantaged backgrounds. 6 7 7 20
COMMENDED General Motors GM cut its hundreds of outside counsel firms to just 19 strategic legal partners, using diversity as a factor in its selection. The legal team also tracks high-level legal tasks and the external lawyers assigned to them, again with the aim of improving diversity.  7 7 6 20
COMMENDED PayPal While it is standard practice for companies to require diversity from their panel law firms, PayPal's legal team encourages other parts of the business to follow the same policy. Now the human resources and communications departments expect suppliers to put forward diverse teams too. 6 7 7 20
COMMENDED Flex Trained in-house lawyers to be “trusted advisers”, inspired by the book by David Maister and Charles Green. This approach has enabled its legal team to act as a strategic partner within the business. The team also ran a mentorship programme with law firm Dykema, where senior Flex lawyers work with junior outside counsel, and vice versa. 6 7 6 19
COMMENDED Pearson The team run a mentorship programme for disabled people interested in a career in law. Mentees have gone on to secure places at law school, jobs in the industry or used the experience to launch disability mentoring programmes. 6 7 6 19
Diversity and Inclusion
Rank Law firm Description Originality Leadership Impact Total
STANDOUT DLA Piper The firm worked with Professor Kenji Yoshino and New York University School of Law to create an interactive training workshop. This uses performances based on social science to educate the firm's lawyers about diversity, inclusion and so-called covering, the practice of hiding differences. The firm has applied the training group-wide and is experimenting with different approaches. Commended: Roger Meltzer 8 9 8 25
STANDOUT Baker McKenzie Directors at Baker McKenzie have committed to gender ratios of at least 40 per cent men, 40 per cent women and 20 per cent unspecified gender (men, women or non-binary individuals) by July 2025, across all partners, senior business professionals, committee leadership and candidate pools for recruitment. A separate initiative has helped women move into partner and other senior leadership positions. Commended: Anna Brown 8 9 7 24
STANDOUT Burford Capital Litigation finance company Burford Capital has committed $50m to fund litigation cases led by female lawyers. The aim is to incentivise the promotion of women to leadership positions in law firms. 9 9 6 24
STANDOUT Selendy & Gay Selendy & Gay has adopted approaches that include blind recruitment, allowing associates to opt in to work on cases and comprehensive training to help it achieve its aim to be diverse and inclusive. 9 9 6 24
HIGHLY COMMENDED Ropes & Gray A two-year programme at the firm allows individuals who may not otherwise have studied law to work as paralegals. In addition to legal training, they learn about law firm culture and build their networks. Once they have graduated they are invited to join the firm as associates. 7 8 8 23
HIGHLY COMMENDED Latham & Watkins Women's leadership and diversity leadership events are an effective part of Latham & Watkins' strategy to recruit, retain and promote a diverse workforce. Women and ethnic minorities now make up 44 per cent of the firm's executive committee. 6 8 8 22
HIGHLY COMMENDED Proskauer Rose Proskauer Prep is a week-long training programme for female law students held the summer before they start law school. It gives the students skills, knowledge and a network of peers. 7 9 6 22
HIGHLY COMMENDED Weil, Gotshal & Manges In 2018 the firm rolled out its Upstander programme, which supports and educates staff in how to be an ally to colleagues who feel marginalised or under-represented. 8 8 6 22
COMMENDED Ballard Spahr A central database analyses diversity statistics across Ballard Spahr. Data can be filtered by practice area and other factors to pinpoint which areas require attention and investment. 7 7 7 21
COMMENDED Bracewell A programme called Minute Mentoring was developed by the firm to provide young female lawyers with short bursts of mentoring by women in leadership roles from both the company and their client organisations. 5 8 8 21
COMMENDED Ropes & Gray The firm created an LGBT+ self-ID guide for businesses to help them implement policies and practices to support staff. It provides practical steps, addresses challenges around data and privacy and outlines the business benefits of implementing a programme. 7 8 5 20
COMMENDED Seyfarth Shaw The firm established the Comunidad Model, a network of women and minority-owned law firms with which Seyfarth works on different litigation matters, increasing the work shared with these firms. 7 7 6 20

Explore the Innovative Lawyers North America rankings 2019


  • Most innovative law firms
  • Most innovative in-house legal teams
  • Rule of law and access to justice
  • Collaboration

Business of Law

  • Technology and data
  • New business and service delivery models
  • New products and services
  • Talent, strategy and changing behaviours
  • Diversity and inclusion

Legal Expertise

  • Accessing new markets and capital
  • Creating a new standard
  • Enabling business growth and transformation
  • Litigation and disputes
  • Managing complexity and scale
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