Larissa Neumann (Fenwick & West, Mountain View, CA; Lecturer, UC-Berkeley), A Virtuous Cycle: Investing in Diversity and Inclusion, 99 Tax Notes State 995 (Mar. 8, 2021):
The call for more equal representation of women in positions of power in the tax law profession has never been louder than it is today. Companies, professional organizations, law schools, and society at large are initiating a concerted push for greater gender diversity within law firms. According to the American Bar Association’s “ABA Profile of the Profession 2020 Report,” the percentage of female lawyers has increased very slowly in the last 10 years; it stood at 31 percent in 2010 and is now at 37 percent. Male attorneys still greatly outnumber female attorneys, especially in management and equity partner positions. Although women generally have made up half of graduating law school classes for the last 20 years, there continues to be a disparity in the legal profession.
While most law firms have explicitly professed a desire for more women in leadership, implicit biases and structural impediments within the profession have kept women significantly underrepresented within the upper reaches of the tax law hierarchy. To display commitment to the firm, women who are parents have felt the pressure to submit to a work environment and time schedule at tension with their obligations as mothers and domestic partners. The recent ABA report “Walking Out the Door,” which includes results from a survey of more than 1,200 senior lawyers at the nation’s biggest private law firms, reported that 58 percent of women viewed caretaking commitments as the most important reason that female lawyers leave their jobs. To fit the mold of a dedicated professional, women have felt pressure to delay or alter the timing of significant life events such as marriage and pregnancy. Over time, the frictions of these structural impediments wear against female attorneys’ psyches, often causing them to compromise their careers for the sake of family and personal commitments.
Throughout my career I have worked in tandem with my firm, Fenwick & West LLP, to dismantle these subtle and not-so-subtle structures of male power that have stood in the way of female professional empowerment. By advocating for my own interests and having a progressive law firm that took those interests to heart, I have been able to advance in my career without disregarding my unique experiences and challenges as a wife and a mother. By seeing me and hearing me as a woman, Fenwick has demonstrated a commitment to diversity in its highest levels of power and laid the institutional foundations for many more female attorneys to follow in my footsteps.
I remember staring at the little pink lines indicating that I was pregnant with mixed emotions. I was filled with guarded joy that was also clouded with a faint concern when I thought of my career. In 2006 pregnancy announcements were not expected from first-year associates at a law firm — at least not from associates who were at all serious about becoming partners. “Wait until you are a partner until you have kids” was standard advice, and doing otherwise would sabotage your ability as a woman to prove your dedication to the firm and credibility in the profession. But my life path had taken a drastic detour from the career trajectory mapped out by conventional wisdom.
After having my first child, I returned to work eager to add value to every project I was assigned and grow in my practice as a tax attorney. Thankfully, at Fenwick, I was not spared difficult assignments and challenging projects in my days after returning from maternity. One of my mentors, Jim Fuller, recounted how when he started tax law there was “Girl Tax,” which was estates and trusts, and “Boy Tax,” which was international tax. He expressed how he thought that was inappropriate and supported my taking on challenging international tax projects, including inversion transaction, transfer pricing, and controversy.
Importantly, my professional growth was not predicated on Fenwick treating me just like everyone else. The firm recognized that the work life of a new mother would not mirror that of a single attorney. I often went home early for dinner, but then picked back up after the kids were asleep. And there were breast pumping schedules, birthday parties, and preschool recitals that had to be accommodated. And all the while, I received the support and understanding of my firm, as Fenwick trusted my ability to add more value each year that I walked the tightrope of work-life balance. Fenwick understood that although my family obligations differed from those of most attorneys at my level, if those obligations were respected and accommodated — I would be all the more dedicated to my practice and add more value to the firm in the long haul.
Fenwick understood that the call for diversity is founded upon the ability of those in power to appreciate and accommodate the differences that matter, while still allowing individuals to flourish on the merits of their work. One of the keys to promoting gender diversity is recognizing that the path to success leads in many different ways. ...
I am excited to lead the next turning in this virtuous cycle of trust and gratitude, assuring that Fenwick sets the standard for diversity and inclusion in the legal community.