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Roundtable on gender diversity in law with Burford's senior women

October 12, 2019

In honor of International Women’s Day, we sat down with a handful of Burford’s senior women to discuss gender diversity in the legal industry. Our conversation included Aviva Will, Senior Managing Director; Elizabeth O’Connell CFA, Chief Financial Officer; Emily Slater, Managing Director; Katharine Wolanyk, Managing Director; Liz Bigham, Chief Marketing Officer; Leah Guggenheimer, Chief Process & Innovation Officer; Christine Azar, Director; and Elizabeth Fisher, Senior Vice President.

The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is #BalanceforBetter. Why do you think that gender balance is of such importance to the legal industry?  What do you think is the biggest obstacle to women in law?

Aviva Will: A diversity of perspectives is important in all aspects of business and life—but in law it’s crucial. Simply put, clients are represented most effectively when there is equality at the table. The question we should be asking is: “If women make up half the planet, why isn’t there already equal gender representation throughout the legal industry?”

The biggest obstacle standing in the way of true balance in the industry—and preventing clients from drawing on all kinds of perspectives from their legal team—is the fact that law has patriarchal roots. As long as those structures remain in place, it will be very hard to achieve gender equity. On a micro-level this is why The Equity Project is so important—it's not just about having women representing clients in court, it’s about raising the profile of women at law firms so that they can be paid equally and, even more importantly, so that they can influence firm culture.

Elizabeth Fisher: Despite countless diversity programs in law firms, gender parity in the partner pool has not improved. In the war for talent, law firms are laser-focused on how to attract and retain the best talent—and they need to do so with both genders in mind.

One of the biggest obstacles facing women in private practice relates to origination. The way lawyers demonstrate success and create the business case for promotion in their firms is by building a book of business. Often, it’s easier for men to originate new business because historically they have often inherited client relationships and opportunities through informal networks from more senior partners—almost all of whom are men. Women must also overcome unconscious bias. For instance, research has shown that women tend to be judged more on past performance than on their potential. This is exacerbated by the general tendency for women to focus on doing a job well, rather than to self-promote, which can be interpreted as a lack of confidence or a lack of ambition. On the other hand, if they express that ambition, they can run the risk of being seen as aggressive and self-serving—the balance that needs to be struck is a delicate one.

Emily Slater: There remains a lot unconscious bias in law firms—not giving women the hardest assignments and biggest challenges where women really get to prove their mettle and effectiveness as lawyers—that is happening more these days out of ingrained sense of benevolence than hostility to women, but the effects on women’s advancement are similar. And, it remains challenging to get ahead in the competitive law firm environment with ever more focus on rainmaking and client relationships, which tend to be handed down from men to men.

Further, the “up or out” culture of many law firms, where firms have huge classes coming in and yet they only make a handful of partners, where the focus is often on the negative rather than positive investment in lawyers, can be unappealing to women in particular. It’s not that women can't compete! But it can be an inhospitable work environment and talented women may be more likely to seek a work environment that appreciates their contributions and is more supportive.

Elizabeth O’Connell: Gender balance is critical to business generally—bringing a broader set of ideas to the table only enhances decision-making. In finance, for instance, studies have shown that women bring a different approach to risk analysis.

What’s interesting is that despite relative gender balance in law school or at the junior associate levels at law firms, that balance greatly decreases at senior levels. When women start families, those few years can be challenging—companies and law firms are still grappling with how to be more flexible and accommodating during this brief time in a woman’s career. But it is indeed a need. The consequence of this inflexibility is that there is a dearth of senior women at the top, which leads to a vicious cycle, as there are consequently fewer women supporting the idea that balance is needed.

Liz Bigham: As Burford’s chief marketer I’ll speak from my own experience as a businessperson (but not a lawyer). Balance matters because, as so many studies have shown, a more diverse workplace simply makes for better outcomes—and that makes sense intuitively because in any business one needs diverse talent to achieve excellence, to adapt to the reality of constant change and to execute and actually get things done.

In terms of obstacles, I think the biggest may be that there remain stubbornly persistent stereotypes about what leaders look and act like. Those kinds of stereotypes are tough to call out in the lived work environment and really hard to change.

Leah Guggenheimer: Gender balance is important for the legal industry for many of the same reasons it is important everywhere else—equality of opportunity irrespective of culturally imposed expectations, improving the balance of power and access to decision-making authority. Much research has demonstrated that gender-diverse companies produce better outcomes for all stakeholders and society at large. A legal profession that is gender-balanced will be a much more effective champion in dismantling legal obstacles to gender equality than one that simply reflects the same biases of the overall society.

Burford has achieved near-gender parity among its senior leadership. How do you think this affects Burford’s culture and has contributed to Burford’s success as a business?

Aviva Will: When we started Burford there wasn't an easy template to replicate—we weren't a law firm or a hedge fund; instead, we had an opportunity to build a culture that we wanted to be a part of. We didn’t consciously set out to create a culture tailored to the needs of women but ended up building a culture in which we thrive. At Burford, we are not interested in putting anyone in a box—we want each member of the team to bring her or his whole self to the business, adding value to the business and our clients in any capacity. By its nature, this expands the opportunities for everybody, including women.

Emily Slater: We are not a law firm, but many of us practiced for years at law firms and we consciously decided to keep the excellence and rigorousness that the best firms bring to risk assessment but reject other aspects of law firm culture. At Burford, we work hard to foster a culture where we stand by each other and work together as a team and foster an environment that is supportive of the team in multiple ways.

We seriously value and encourage team input and we believe different opinions are a key ingredient in the secret sauce of our investment success. And we focus on reasonable flexibility to manage work and family, for instance being present for important family functions, or encouraging the team to take full advantage of family leave or vacation while the rest of the team fills the gap, which makes for a generally positive working environment.

Additionally, in part because we are women and in part because Burford overall has a serious commitment to diversity, we really focus on maintaining gender diversity and enhancing our diversity overall both in hiring and in keeping diverse team members in the culture we are creating. And we acknowledge that needs change as Burford grows as a company—so looking at our culture and how we can improve it is something we are working on.

Liz Bigham: I can’t help but think the relative diversity of our team and the presence of so many strong, patient and pragmatic women have helped make us extremely successful in the business of managing legal risk. I’d also say that both as a matter of culture and business outcomes, Burford is a place where people very much see success as shared and collaborative, rather than as individual and competitive. That, combined with the number of very senior women here who set such great examples as leaders, not only make this a very happy place to work now, but also make me very optimistic about our future prospects.

Leah Guggenheimer: One of the hallmarks of Burford is how collaborative it is—which is definitely a direct outgrowth of our gender balance in the senior leadership ranks. Given the amount of unpaid (and un-celebrated) work women traditionally do in the home, they have an intimate understanding of the maxim “The way to get things done is not to mind who gets the credit of doing them.” With so many women at the helm, our culture is a highly effective amalgam of finding the person with the best capabilities for the job, irrespective of title or department, and a no muss, no fuss let’s get it done mentality.

Katharine Wolanyk: The law firms and corporates that we deal with increasingly have more women in leadership positions. The fact that we have such a strong contingent of women means that female clients can bring their business concerns to us knowing that we have similar perspectives to them both in business and from a gender perspective.

Christine Azar: Gender parity leads to a collaborative, open environment where different views are taken into consideration. People come at issues in different ways and this allows us to be creative in solving problems for our clients and helping them achieve their goals.

Elizabeth Fisher: As a relative newcomer to Burford, I can say the strong presence of women was an attractive differentiator. During my interview process, it was refreshing to be interviewed by a number of very senior women who clearly had equal influence over the development of the business.  That bleeds into the culture and approach to building the business, which majors on collaboration and business outcomes rather than on the success of the individual. The Equity Project was one of the first things that I heard about (I attended the London launch before I joined) and it was music to my ears. It demonstrates not only our focus on ensuring the right balance in Burford’s business, but also that we are thinking about our responsibility to identify tangible ways to influence the industry and encourage change.

According to new research by BCG, diversity programs often fail due to a lack of focus on implementation. How does The Equity Project differ from other law firm and corporate diversity programs?

Emily Slater: People talk about women falling short of or behind their male colleagues, but that characterization is tied to the concept of rainmaking and bringing in business. With The Equity Project, we're here to provide an economic incentive for women to both make some rain and to communicate to women specifically that there is an opportunity to use litigation finance as a business development tool. One of the more surprising things about the launch of the Equity Project was just how so many women told us they just hadn’t thought about litigation finance as a tool for them or how litigation finance can be a tool that can be a thumb on the scale for winning business over traditional relationship-based business development. Most women are so focused on trying to get their work done and get home that many of them hadn't really thought of legal finance as a tool that they could give them a competitive edge.

Elizabeth O’Connell: I think The Equity Project encourages law firms to look inwards. Because there is money attached, it incentivizes law firms to reflect on who is running their large pieces of litigation. As opposed to simply paying lip service to the issue, The Equity Project has an actual attachment of money.

Christine Azar: In the last few decades, a considerable amount of time and energy has been spent discussing law’s diversity problem and talking about potential solutions. But that is often as far as it goes. By creating a $50 million-dollar pool of capital behind The Equity Project, we are creating a financial incentive for women to actually go out there and develop business, a major factor in most law firm leadership decisions.

Aviva Will: Law firms recognize the gender disparity problem and genuinely want to make a difference, but relying on diversity programs to fix the problem is like applying a bandage to a broken bone—fundamentally, they fail because the underlying culture remains the same.

The Equity Project seeks to change the law firm culture by focusing on what actually drives law firms: Revenues. The money earmarked for The Equity Project will ensure that more women are seen as rainmakers, increasing their chance to be promoted and to gain access to management committees, from which they will have greater power to change the culture of that firm over time. When you have women at the table, it changes the conversation.

Elizabeth Fisher: The Equity Project is different to a number of popular law firm initiatives such as flexibility in the way that you work, or even quotas, and goes back to the idea of helping a woman build a business. At the end of the day, it’s the money, it’s the profits, it’s the business that counts. The Equity Project enables a woman to demonstrate both financial and commercial savviness in front of clients and within the firm. Certainly, the feedback that we have had from female partners in London, New York and Paris has been incredibly positive—The Equity Project is seen as a tangible way for a woman to build a practice and her name within a law firm, an opportunity she may not otherwise have had

Katharine Wolanyk: Given the short time that Burford has had the Equity Project capital available, the level of excitement has been enormous. From Burford’s perspective, the initiative has been crucial to business generation—the ability to have capital dedicated as an incentive to increase the number of women reaching senior positions in law firms is very attractive to finance and an intriguing new avenue to pitch. With the Equity Project we can have a real business and financial impact—it really gets into the nuts and bolts of helping women originate new business.

Imagine that it’s 2029 and that the gender gap in law has shrunk considerably. What do you think that will look like—would you expect to see any differences in culture or values within the legal industry?

Liz Bigham: I have a teenage son who proudly describes himself as a feminist, because “equality benefits men as much as women.” I share that not only as a proud mother, but also because I think 2029 might not just have more women in leadership positions but also more men making use of family leave policies. I have to believe that will result in a happier future for everyone. Over the long term—and ten years may not be enough to prove this out—it would also be fascinating to study the data on how the presence of more women leaders in law and other industries impacts business outcomes.

Elizabeth O’Connell: Burford has a very team-based approach in our business and I think that is a result of the number of women at Burford. And don’t get me wrong, this is not to say that women are soft; I think quite the opposite! I think women are demanding both of others, but particularly themselves, but we facilitate the creation of work with more a team-focused approach.

Emily Slater:  As more women achieve leadership positions in firms there will be more women making decisions about women advancing in firms, bringing equity to compensation decisions and decisions about how work and credit are assigned This ultimately will reduce some of the unconscious bias issues when somebody is coming up for partner, removing impediments both for women pursuing senior roles at the firm and lawyers overall.

We will see clients hiring law firms driven less by relationships and more by being able to demonstrate excellence and effectiveness, meritocracy that we hope will benefit the best lawyers and not the best networks. And we’ll continue to see clients take the lead on pushing law firms to improve their diversity. Overall, I think firm culture needs to shift to more positive investment in human capital not just for women but for everybody in the firm—and I do think firms need to do more to commit to affirmatively change firm culture by taking concrete steps to change incentives and culture.

Christine Azar: As the gender gap decreases, you will see several changes. First, there will be more women in leadership positions mentoring younger women. Second, there will be fewer clients being passed on from one male partner to the next, with more emphasis placed on institutionalizing clients so that everyone shares in the success of the firm. Finally, there will be greater flexibility in how people work as firms recognize that people can and will work from wherever they need to be.

Katharine Wolanyk: The impact of greater diversity can be seen in a more balanced process of career advancement. For example, new technology is enabling people to work remotely more frequently and be more present out of the office. This continues to be a healthy development particularly as legal practice is associated with a history of depression and stress. The more balanced and diverse the firm, the healthier the environment.

Leah Guggenheimer: In terms of culture and values, I would hope that we see a major shift from compensation based upon individualistic factors (e.g., number of clients “originated”, number of hours billed) to more holistic metrics (e.g., number of cross-sells, participation in non-billable projects that benefit the firm, team mentoring, profitable project management, etc.). That, in turn, might diminish the expectations of face time and long hours. Both “making your numbers” and being visibly seen as a workhorse will wane in importance, which in turn will also make it easier for women to succeed in meeting expectations for advancement.

With greater advancement—at less sacrifice to other priorities, like home and family—I hope both that men will become more equal co-parents with their spouses and that women will drop out of the profession at much lower rates. With women in more senior roles at law firms, many other gender-unfriendly aspects of law firm life will slowly begin to melt away as well, reinforcing the attractiveness of law as a career. In this brave new world, everyone will have greater satisfaction from both their professional and personal lives and the great diversity of individual preferences between work and home life balance can be supported rather than historical gender constraints enforced against the interests of both individuals and firms.

In such a world, instead of lamenting the percentage of women in the workplace, we’d simply not notice.