Women’s group is catalyst for understanding and empowerment
Today, most dynamic corporations are committed to the core values of diversity and valuing people. Business is so competitive that no company can afford to overlook half of the population. Corporations and law firms can not survive without the creativity and new thinking that diverse teams ensure. The challenge is in effectively attaining diversity goals — developing substantive legal, leadership and management skills in populations that have historically been overlooked by the legal community. For example, how do corporations guarantee that women’s accomplishments are publicly recognized, particularly when women and men seem to have different approaches to self-promotion? How do we help outside counsel develop into the rainmakers and managers law firms needs to compete? How can the profession increase the number of women in positions of general counsel, associate general counsel, managing partner, executive committee member and CEO?
The DuPont Women Lawyers’Network, a joint effort between women in-house and outside counsel dedicated to the development and advancement of women leaders in both the corporation and the law firm, offers a new approach. The Women Lawyers’ Network grew out of DuPont’s highly publicized legal model. In what was then termed “convergence,” DuPont reduced its number of outside law firms from nearly 350 to approximately 35. Outside law firms (known as primary law firms or PLFs) were selected on the basis of a number of criteria, including competence, results, technology and diversity efforts. The PLFs have designated geographic areas, so that competition among them is minimal. With DuPont’s help, the PLFs market to each other and jointly market the PLF firms and the DuPont Legal Model.
In an effort to increase the leadership of women lawyers within the DuPont Legal Model, DuPont attorney Lisa Passante, with the assistance of Felice Wagner of Sales and Service Solutions and Suzi Pomerantz, led a two day Conference on Women and the Practice of Law for DuPont. The 1998 conference, attended by approximately 140 in-house and outside women, was an overwhelming success. The speakers were inspiring and the discussion among attendees free-flowing. Best of all, by coming together, women’s diverse voices were heard without inter ruption or condescension. With the tension of communicating in a man’s world eliminated, the energy of the group increased ten-fold. At least for those two days, attendees realized that if they lost their fear of supporting each other, women could progress exponentially.
Perhaps the words of Gloria Steinem, from her book, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions (Henry Holt and Company, Inc., 1995) sum things up best: “If you travel around this country, you can’t miss it: In the ‘80s and ‘90s, networking is what consciousness-raising was to the seventies. It’s the primary way women discover that we are not crazy, the system is. We also discover that mutual support groups can create change where the most courageous individual woman could not.”
As a result of the conference, the DuPont Women Lawyers’ Network was born. The network has a three person leadership team consisting of founders Passante, Pomerantz and Gretchen Bender, and five steering committees: marketing, networking, mentoring, communication and promoting women (dealing with issues such as compensation and fair measure). The goal is to positively impact the business of DuPont by promoting legal excellence through the success, development and professional advancement of the women lawyers representing DuPont. In short, the women lawyers at DuPont and its primary law firms have joined together to collectively network, market, mentor and advance the careers of women lawyers. This effort is fully supported and encouraged by DuPont’s top management, and has been overwhelmingly embraced by a majority of DuPont’s primary law firms.
Although the organization is in its infancy, it has achieved some positive results. It has designed a women lawyers’ directory; the group distributes a monthly newsletter that publicizes the achievements of its members; and in-house lawyer Tamera Fair has organized popular monthly meetings about career development issues for in-house women. The network is beginning to study gender bias in lawyer evaluations at the primary law firms, and it is planning a dynamic 1999 conference to keep the spirit and enthusiasm going.
Obviously, not every in-house corporate department has a formalized network of lawyers from which to build. DuPont created a women’s network out of an existing mixed-gender organization, so can other corporations. It may take some courage to be the first to organize a women’s network in your firm or your in-house department, but once you do, you will not be alone in your enthusiasm. Of course, there are professional women’s networks that already exist, such as the ABA’s Commission on Women in the Profession or the ABA Women Rainmakers. While these networks are invaluable, support from women in your own organizations, who already have common ground, is critical. Women’s networks support, encourage, nurture and create a whole new array of business and leadership development opportunities for their members. Through joint effort with your business partners and other existing networks, you can exponentially increase your efforts to promote women and minorities in your companies and your law firms.
This article was submitted by Lisa M. Passante, Esq., E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Co., Gretchen A.Bender, Esq., Morris James Hitchens & Williams, and Suzi Pomerantz, Innovative Leadership International LLC.
From the August 1999 issue of Diversity & The Bar®