We have all seen the statistics: only 17% of equity partners in the nation’s largest 200 firms are women, only 2% of equity partners in the largest 100 firms are female minorities, and women make up the largest percentage of staff attorneys. These trends prevail even though women have continued to enter the practice of law for the past three decades at a rate of at least 40% of law school graduates every year. The recent “2015 Glass Ceiling Report” published by Law360 just last month acknowledged that “Women continue to be dramatically underrepresented at every attorney level in the U.S. legal industry, and firms made negligible progress toward gender equality in 2014.”
Where does one begin to make a lasting, positive difference for women lawyers? That is the question Beth Fitch and I answered when we co-founded the “Ladder Down” program in Arizona with the help of the Arizona Association of Defense Counsel.
In January 2013, we launched a powerful year-long pilot program for women lawyers built on three pillars: leadership, business development, and mentoring. Beth and I wanted to give women practical, tangible tools for succeeding in the legal profession that they can begin implementing in their practice right away. We were driven to empower women through a new type of training that marries instruction with accountability. After all, one cannot have sustained change unless the actions become a habit, and habits take time to develop. For more information about our program, check out our website at www.ladderdown.org. The program is now in its third year and has proven to be pivotal in changing the professional lives of its 80 participants for the better. The Ladder Down program has been so impactful that it is now being used as a model across the country, with similar programs underway in Seattle and New York. The reason for the interest in Ladder Down is simple: our structure works. The evidence of the empowerment is overwhelming.
After completing the one-year course, our Ladder Down graduates report measurable improvements: promotions to partnership, new clients, expanded business networks, robust referrals, substantial raises, firm transitions, and a universal increase in community involvement. Participants negotiated their salaries (some for the first time), developed formal business plans, and gained speaking and publishing opportunities. They landed positions on boards, obtained origination credit, and learned to state their accomplishments. In addition to these “external” changes, they saw internal changes: increased confidence at networking events, a new ability to resolve conflict, a commitment to prioritizing business development, and a better understanding of their own strengths. Every one of them benefitted from taking risks they would not otherwise have taken.
When Beth and I first launched Ladder Down we had several conversations about which organization would make the best partner. Beth had served as President of the Arizona Association of Defense Counsel several years earlier, as had my father Doug Christian, and I am still an active member of the AADC Board of Directors. We both had such wonderful experiences and built lasting relationships through the AADC that our natural inclination was to start there. I pitched the Ladder Down idea to the AADC Board during our 2012 fall retreat and was met with an incredibly warm reception. The Board was excited about this new endeavor, which was unlike anything that the AADC – or any other SLDO to our knowledge – had ever undertaken.
As with any program, the first questions surrounded expenses. What would the pilot program cost and how did Beth and I intend to pay for it? We approached our faculty (by far our largest expense) and were able to negotiate “pilot program” rates for the inaugural 2013 Ladder Down program. Once we had their rates confirmed, we were able to set a target goal for fundraising. We explained to the AADC that our goal was to find law firms interested in sponsoring at the $1,000 level; in exchange for that $1,000 the firm would be guaranteed a space for a participant of its choice in the 2013 program. We asked the AADC to match our $1,000 sponsorships (up to a certain cap) until we reached our target amount. The AADC agreed with that strategy and we were approved to start fundraising in the fall of 2012. Several Board members even committed their firms to the $1,000 sponsorship right there on the spot. When I called Beth after that meeting, the first words out of my mouth were “It’s alive!”
The relationship between Ladder Down and the AADC was mutually beneficial from the start. The AADC was instrumental in helping Beth and I spread the word about our new program. They helped advertise the launch to the AADC members, and the firms represented on the Board were eager to sponsor our pilot program and send their attorneys to Ladder Down. We also had a home for Ladder Down rooted in Arizona’s defense community and could run the financial component of the program without having to start our own 501(c)(6). Because participation in the first and second year classes was restricted to AADC members, AADC membership increased. In fact, each year we saw several women lawyers join the AADC specifically to participate in Ladder Down. And in 2013, during the pilot program’s first year, DRI recognized the AADC with the DRI Diversity Award. This award is given to the SLDO that demonstrates a commitment to diversity and it was an incredible honor for the AADC. It is not hard to see how this relationship between an SLDO and Ladder Down can be win-win!
Our mission going forward to is to bring Ladder Down to other SLDOs interested in making a positive difference for their women lawyers. The staggering statistics that we continue to see reported are not going to shift unless there is a more intentional effort to bring about change. The good news is that the leg work for “Ladder Down” has already been done. We have the structure and agenda for the year-long program in place; we have faculty with demonstrated results; we have brochures, applications, evaluations, and CLE certificates already created; and we have leaders from the Arizona program who are able to share their experiences. The next steps are to find champions in other cities who can partner with their SLDOs to launch this fantastic program. I encourage you to reach out to me about how you can start a Ladder Down program in your area.
Alison R. Christian, Shareholder at Christian Dichter & Sluga, P.C.
 See National Association of Women Lawyers and The NAWL Foundation’s 2013 Annual Survey on the Retention and Promotion of Women in Law Firms. www.nawl.org).