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Female attorneys making inroads in top roles at private law firms

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Women hold a greater percentage of associate and partner positions at San Diego County law firms than a year ago, but still are far less represented in the private sector than in the public sector.

The findings were revealed in the Lawyers Club of San Diego’s annual Equality Survey, which also showed that women continue to hold most of the top-level legal jobs at public agencies.

At the 42 private firms surveyed, women hold 51 percent of associate positions, an increase of 3 percent from a year ago.

Meanwhile, women now hold 25 percent of partner positions at the firms, up from 24 percent in 2013.

Overall, women hold about 37 percent of positions at those firms, up from 36 percent last year.

The private firms included in the Lawyers Club's 23rd survey are those with 15 or more employees in San Diego County.

The Lawyers Club also reviewed the number of women at a dozen public agencies in the county, including the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of California and the city attorney’s office.

Women in those agencies hold 59 percent of all legal positions, the same percentage as a year ago.

When it comes to top roles, the number of women decreased by 3 points, but women still hold 57 percent of those slots.

Patricia P. Hollenbeck, the president of the Lawyers Club, said she was encouraged that the overall percentage of female lawyers increased slightly, but acknowledged there is room for improvement, especially in the private sector.

“It is heartening to have a little bit of increase, but we have a ways to go yet,” said Hollenbeck, a partner at Duane Morris LLP. “We can see we are still lagging behind on the private side, which means there needs to be more attention paid to business generation.”

The survey results were released at a Lawyers Club lunch Thursday and discussed by a panel of three distinguished female attorneys.

The panelists said they think more women are gravitating to the public sector because they can achieve a better work-life balance than at a private firm.

Michele Wein Layne, regional director of the Los Angeles Regional Office of the Securities and Exchange Commission, pointed to recent interviews she conducted with job candidates from top Los Angeles law firms.

She said those interviewed had the sense of being owned by the client and their law firm, and knew "if you don't produce, you have no job security.”

“I think part of it is just that treadmill and people wanting to have a balance in their life,” Layne said of the prevalence of women in the public sector.

Laura Duffy, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California, said the legal work in the public sector gives attorneys the chance to spend their time focusing on the law rather than on growing a practice.

That opportunity can be very appealing, especially for women with families, she said.

“You work hard, and you produce good work, and you are involved in the pure practice of law without this other piece of constantly developing clients and marketing yourself,” Duffy said.

A lack of business development was cited by 44 percent of firms as the greatest obstacle for women achieving equity partnership in a survey published by the National Association of Women Lawyers.

Christina Dyer, a former general counsel for the San Diego Unified School District, also spent 10 years in the private sector before retiring.

Dyer said business development is important, because a lawyer can’t succeed in the private sector without clients.

But an increased focus on marketing, Dyer said, will be the key to women thriving at law firms.

“For some reason, we talk about business development and networking, but you need to market,” Dyer told the crowd of female attorneys. “You need to market yourself, market your firm and market the problem-solving skills you have.”

Dyer encouraged the lawyers in the crowd to develop a written marketing plan with a list of potential clients to help them plot how they will try to grow their client base.

Duffy, who has held her position since 2010, credited her success to having a sense of self and self-confidence. She encouraged the women to take a similar approach.

“I have always refused to let anyone else define who I am or the limits of what I could achieve,” she said. “As long as you stay authentic to yourself, you have a much easier time moving along a path to success.”

Layne said her willingness to be straightforward and candid with her bosses, rather than telling them what they wanted to hear, helped her develop mentors that valued her judgment.

“That really enabled us to develop strong relationships and relationships of trust,” said Layne, who credited her relationships with three male mentors as helping her advance.

The Lawyers Club’s Equality Survey also focuses on the diversity at private law firms and public agencies.

The percentage of nonwhite attorneys at public agencies this year reached 24 percent, a 2 percent increase from 2013 and most since the Lawyers Club has been tracking that category.

Nonwhite representation at private firms increased by 1 percent from a year ago to 16 percent, a 3-point bump from the 2012 survey.

Hollenbeck said the increase in diversity in the legal community was an encouraging trend.

“What we are looking for as a legal community is greater representation for all kinds of different people,” she said.

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