Inside the rise of women leaders at Louisville's top law firms – Louisville Business First – The Business Journals

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At the beginning of 2021, Marjorie Farris was named chair of Stites & Harbison PLLC, Louisville’s second-largest law firm. She’s the first female chair in the firm’s 189-year history.
Last year, Cindy Young was named chair at Wyatt, Tarrant & Combs LLP, Louisville’s third-largest law firm and the firm’s first female chair in its 209-year history.
Laurel Cornell is managing partner of the Kentucky regional office of Fisher Phillips LLP, one of the country’s largest law firms.
The Louisville legal market is exploding with women at the tops of their firms — the sound of another glass ceiling shattering.
Farris’ path was set at an early age. The earliest jolt of empowerment she remembers came from Mister Rogers, when she was a kindergartner in Somerset, Kentucky.
“He had a female doctor on his show, and I remember asking my mother, ‘Can women really be doctors?’” she recalled. “And my mother said, ‘Of course! Women can be doctors and a lot of other things too. Anything you want to be.’”
A lawyer it would be.
And Farris, Cornell and Young are part of a larger trend.
The national sorority of sisters in law is booming. In 1960, there were an estimated 8,000 female attorneys in the U.S., or less than 1% of the total. In 2018, according to the latest U.S. Census statistics, there were more than 400,000 licensed female attorneys, about 38%.
“Females are now regularly 50 percent of our total first-year classes,” said Mary Davis, dean of the University of Kentucky J. David Rosenberg College of Law (and herself the first female dean of the school). “As recently as the mid-1980s, women made up only 25 or 30 percent of our law school applicants.”
The fact that women make up half of today’s law school population and nearly 40% of the total number of practicing attorneys in the U.S. is good news, even though many of those accomplished women probably would ask, “What took so long?”
Today, there’s evidence all around the country — and especially in the Louisville market — that a difference is finally being made.
According to Davis, this should not be regarded as a surprise, but rather as an inevitability.
“If 50 percent of women are graduating law schools, why shouldn’t there be at least 50 percent of women lawyers in leadership positions?” she asks. “Today’s graduates have expectation and ambition to become leaders in their firms and in their communities.”
Louisville-based Cornell is no unicorn at the 36-office firm of Fisher Phillips, which represents management in the areas of labor, employment, civil rights, employee benefits and immigration law. According to the Fisher Phillips’ website, Suzanne Bogdan is the managing partner of the Florida office; Susan Hartmus Heiser is the managing partner of the Michigan office; Rosemary Gousman is managing partner of the New Jersey office; and Theresa Connolly is managing partner of the D.C. office.
Cornell graduated from UK’s law school in 2007, arguably a part of the “new wave.” But there was still plenty of old thinking.
“After my first semester in law school, on-campus interviews were beginning for summer associates,” she said. “I was getting some guidance about how to prepare for the interviews and how to beef up my resume. My counselor asked me if I was in a ‘good’ sorority in college. ‘Put that on your resume,’ she advised. ‘You’ll be interviewing with a lot of men, that might be interesting to them. Also put down that you once took ballet lessons. Men will find that interesting.’”
“I was my high school’s valedictorian, I was in the honors program at Kentucky and my law school grades were good,” Cornell said. “I doubt that men with solid credentials and grades would have received the same advice. But it was still somewhat of a popularity contest for women. It was thought that it was what women needed to do to get ahead in law.”
After graduating, Cornell went to work at Wyatt, Tarrant & Combs, before joining Fisher Phillips’ new Louisville office in 2010 as a junior associate. Perhaps because the new firm was small — only four attorneys at its inception — she advanced rapidly, becoming a partner and co-chair of the firm’s Healthcare Industry Group. She became the office’s regional management partner this year when co-founder Thomas Burchfield seized an opportunity to become general counsel for one of his clients.
There are now 14 attorneys at the office, of which seven are women. There are eight partners, of which four are women. Cornell feels the tight-knit group of women in the office has fostered a positive sense of confidence. But she also feels her time at Wyatt planted the seed of her confidence in career opportunities.
“The women partners grew up together in the firm,” she said. “We’ve all talked a lot about the challenges, the decisions and the repercussions of being female attorneys.”
Young joined Wyatt out of the University of Louisville Brandeis School of Law in 1982, a quarter of a century earlier than Cornell. But she stayed and prospered at the firm because, she said, “I’ve been fortunate to have been here at Wyatt, where merit matters.”
“When I first joined Wyatt ages ago, the firm already had successful female attorneys among its ranks,” she told Business First for an earlier article. “It is nice that we have now checked this box. It is a sign to up-and-comers that there are no closed doors at Wyatt.
“There have always been enough women attorneys here — and women partners — that I never felt any pushback because I was a woman,” she said about the firm. “Nor did I feel I was any kind of a trend-setter as I moved up in the ranks.”
Move up the ranks, she did. She was at one time president of the Louisville Bar Association. She won several “best lawyer” accolades.
Farris went right to Stites & Harbison after graduating from the Brandeis School in 1995. She also made a place for herself in the large firm, serving on the management committee for three years in 2008-11 and serving another three as office executive member from 2013-16. She says she has felt empowered there.
“Stites and other firms are not going to put a woman in charge if they feel she’s going to embarrass them,” she said.
Farris sees part of her leadership role at Stites as mentoring other young female attorneys.
“Any time women see other women in positions like the one I hold, it’s an example to them that there’s a path for them to reach the same level of achievement in their career,” she said.
She says she still finds herself having to encourage young female associates to deal with the snubs and dismissive attitudes that should have been disappearing by now. Like “when you show up for a deposition and are mistaken for the court reporter. Or someone in a meeting asks you if you’ll get the coffee. It’s still happening all the time, to all of us. I try to make sure younger females are not blindsided by it or discouraged by it.”
Even as women reach equality with men in the legal profession mindset, there’s always going to be one place where their paths diverge. It’s still women who have to birth and care for babies, which leads to career interruptions that men don’t involuntarily face.
“It’s still clear today that women bear the laboring oar when children enter a family’s life,” Davis said. “So there are roadblocks that slow the path to leadership in their law firms. It takes longer to build a business when one is not billing hours.”
Cornell calls it the “opportunity costs” of maternity leave.
“I have a 4-year-old son,” she said. “When I found out I was pregnant, I was really worried. I had a lot of good clients for whom I was the firm’s main contact. So I became tight-lipped about my pregnancy. I told no-one at the firm, I didn’t put anything about my pregnancy on social media. I instructed friends and family not put anything on there. I was concerned about clients finding out before I had a chance to tell them. They might think: ‘She’s about to take leave so I won’t send her the work.’ ‘When is she coming back?’ ‘Will she return at all?’ ”
And, of course, the issue doesn’t disappear once the attorney gives birth.
“Raising children is still a challenge for women in the law,” said Young, who had a small child when she joined Wyatt. “The law is a profession. We serve our clients, and there’s only so much time in the day. But I think employers today appreciate the balance and the importance of family and they recognize the importance of offering flexibility and work-life balance or they won’t keep their best people.”
Davis agrees.
“I have had students who decided not to seek equity partnerships in law firms because of the time commitments required to attain that and continuing once you achieve that level,” she said. “As a result, expectations that leaders in law firms have for success and promotion have traditionally been fairly narrow. The expectation is that only if you get clients and bill hours can you succeed, and that’s the lane to becoming a managing partner.”
“Everyone has to make choices in his or her personal and professional lives,” she said. “Can we create a culture that permits women not to have to make those choices?”
In the meantime, Young says there are factors that are helping reduce those challenges for women.
“Luckily,” she said, “today’s female lawyers have more resources, they can afford home alternatives not always available to other working women. And then women lawyers who have achieved that goal have been instrumental in changing the narrative of what it takes to get there — that a successful lawyer can also have the balanced life.”
So offering greater opportunities for women — especially in leadership roles — is important for them, and also for their firms. It probably helps the recruitment of practicing attorneys from other firms, as well as new law school graduates.
Young says she’s “proud of the women coming up the ranks, in terms of their confidence, skill set, demeanor. They’re poised to step up to the plate. You have to have a level of confidence just to make it through law school, and a confidence to seize available opportunities.”
Especially if those chances come from working with female clients.
“It’s always challenging for young women associates to take the lead on client cases,” Farris said, “but with more women in business leadership, there’s probably more willingness there to work with the younger women in law firms, and thus their paths to partnerships might be accelerated.”
And, possibly, it helps recruit clients that are increasingly run by women.
“I think we may be able to attract women clients because women clients know we respect them,” said Young. “It’s a culture, and having a woman chair is a sign of the culture — that we respect the person, regardless of gender or race.
“It has taken us a long time to get here, looking at people as people, but I think we’re real close.”
Mindy Sunderland has been managing director at Louisville law firm Morgan Pottinger McGarvey for more than four years. We asked her to share some thoughts on the rise of female law leaders in the Louisville market. Her responses are below:
What are your thoughts on the increase of female-led firms in Louisville?
I’m excited about the increase in women-led law firms and extremely optimistic about what that means for the future. The legal industry as a whole has begun to pay more attention to the role of women, not just in retention efforts but also in leadership development.
Given the significant impact of the global pandemic on women, and especially working mothers, it’s more important than ever to keep this issue front and center. I look forward to watching Louisville law firms continue to progress in this area.
As a woman who has led a firm for several years, what advice to you have for new female law leaders?
I could write an entire article on this topic alone! I think the three most important pieces of advice I can give to up-and-coming women leaders in the legal industry are: A. to build a trusted and authentic network of mentors and colleagues, both inside and outside the legal industry, that you can reach out to on a range of personal and professional issues; B. to trust your instincts and not be afraid to make the occasional mistake; and C. to never take criticism from someone to whom you wouldn’t look for advice.
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