Practicing law has changed dramatically since I started now long ago. We made far less money, ($12,000 when I started), but we never worried about making partner and the law firms demanded less of us. If we worked hard, it was more a choice we made not a demand from our law firm.

Years ago I read an Am Law Daily article: To Dream the Impossible Dream: Making Partner Increasingly Out of Reach.

More recently, I read a Bonnie Marcus interview of Elizabeth Anne “Betiayn” Tursi, Global Chair and Co-founder of the Women in Law Empowerment Forum (WILEF) in Forbes: Forget The Glass Ceiling. Female Attorneys Now Face A Concrete Wall.  Before the interview, reference was made to a Law360 report which included this statistic.

At the top of private firms, four-fifths of equity partners are men, ‘showing a continuing dearth of women at the highest firm level’.

Tursi identified two reasons for this:

I think that the partnership pie is less likely to be cut up than it was years ago. They don’t make as many partners in law firms anymore. And most firms have two tiers. They have non-equity and equity.

I am pleased to say that many of the law firms where I coached didn’t have a concrete wall for female lawyers. Many of those firms are among the Working Mother 60 Best Law Firms for Women. I coached women in the Best Law Firms for Women who are equity partners, top rainmakers and firm leaders.

What would the percentage of women equity partners be if those best firms for women were not considered?

What about the large law firms not on the list? I wondered what percentage of the male equity partners are over 50 in those firms. Then, I wondered what will happen to those law firms when those male equity partners finally retire?

If you are a non-equity partner or senior associate you must not only have significant billable hours, but you also must develop your own book of business. That is tough for any young lawyer.

Tursi described why some women are leaving law firms.

I think it’s the work-life integration. I think it’s about wanting a better life, wanting more balance.

I can relate to wanting a better family life. My work required that I travel almost every week. (I have over 5 million miles on American and over 1 million miles on Delta.) Years after our daughter grew up, got married and started teaching special ed, I found a journal she had written when she was a girl. In one entry she lamented that her father was not home for her birthday.

When I coached lawyers, I discovered that both fathers and mothers wanted a better and more balanced life. I recently completed the first draft of my second novel about a husband/father and wife/mother who are both lawyers. I decided that the mother would be the one more driven to succeed than wanting more balance, and the father would give up his work at a law firm so he could spend more time with their son.

So, is there any possible way to become an equity partner in a law firm while maintaining a more balanced life? In the Am Law Daily article, writers suggested you must pass what they called the “Cleveland Airport Rule.” The rule itself is simple: would a partner at your firm be comfortable getting stuck at the Cleveland airport with you and not want to self-immolate?

If you have hours, clients and pass the Cleveland Airport Rule, Seth Godin would likely say you are a Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?

When I was a young associate, a partner in my first firm unknowingly gave me about the best piece of advice I have ever received. He said:

Cordell, you are a very smart lawyer. You finished third in your law school class. But, smart lawyers graduate from law school every year and they are easily replaced by other smart lawyers. Your success in this firm will depend more on how well you attract, retain and expand relationships with clients. Lawyers with those skills are indispensable.

Are you busy doing the work for senior lawyers in your firm and hoping they appreciate your work so much that it will be ok for you to never have clients of your own? I hope not. If you want to become indispensable:

  • What are you learning about client development?
  • What are you doing to attract new clients?
  • What are you doing to exceed your clients’ expectations and create value for them?
  • What are you doing to build relationships with your clients and with partners in your law firm?