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Gender Diversity in Theory vs. Gender Diversity in Practice

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Shayna M. van Hoften is a partner with Hanson Bridgett, a Northern California-based law firm with more than 150 attorneys. Law360 recently ranked the firm #4 on its list of “The 100 Best Law Firms For Female Attorneys.”

JATHAN JANOVE: In supporting professional women, what distinguishes Hanson Bridgett from other firms?

SHAYNA M. VAN HOFTEN: I think it starts with our overall culture, which is remarkably egalitarian. About ten years ago, we moved into new office space in San Francisco. The firm’s leaders decided there would be no corner offices, and all attorney offices would be the same size, from the managing partner to the most junior attorney. Other firms have followed suit, but we were well ahead of our peers.

Also, unlike many other law firms, we don’t really have “rainmakers” versus “worker bees.” Rather, we look at the whole attorney in terms of overall contribution to the firm's goals. Every attorney who wants one — and some that don't! — gets the opportunity to have a client development coach and is included in a range of major business development opportunities.

Last, the firm invests real time and dollars to supporting women through our own internal Women's Impact Network (WIN) (which works together and in parallel with our Diversity & Inclusion Network), and by sending us to external networking and training programs for professional women, in general (like Watermark), and for women attorneys, more specifically (like the Women's Rainmaker Roundtable). The extent, range and level of resources made available allows us each to develop our own careers, brands and contacts, knowing that the firm is committed to each of us as keys to the company's success now and in the future.

JANOVE: How does your culture apply to women?

VAN HOFTEN: I think in other firms, you are more likely to find that women attorneys assume a “Mother” role, attorneys who do what the literature calls "office housework." Here, at least some of us focus on ensuring that’s not the case. There is an expectation that you help out with whatever needs to be done or should be done, regardless of gender.

JANOVE: What about work/life balance issues?

VAN HOFTEN: I began my career at Hanson Bridgett in 2004 and had my first child in 2006. Following the birth of each of my children, I took leave, and once I went reduced-time after returning from that first leave, I stayed on a reduced schedule for the next nine years. I'm now at the point in my career when I'm looking at dropping the "reduced-time" label, but no one asked or recommended that I do so — it came from me. In some firms, this sort of arrangement would be detrimental to your career. That is not assumed to be the case at our firm. Over these nine years, I continued to receive high-quality work assignments and be included in business development opportunities; I never lacked plenty of work to do, and many colleagues and clients didn't even realize I was reduced time. During this period, I became a partner concurrently with colleagues who started with me, including those who didn’t have children, go on leave or work on an altered schedule. It's really kind of amazing, but I'm not even close to alone.

Also, our firm has a telecommuting policy that makes it fairly easy to work from home. So long as the work gets done properly and on time, especially once you've earned a little capital with your colleagues, you don’t always have to be in the office to be working. With Bay Area traffic, that can be a major time-saver. There are certainly times when telecommuting doesn't work, and lacking physical proximity to your team can be detrimental to the team and the telecommuting attorney, but overall, having the flexibility when you need it — like yesterday, when my son had a medical appointment at 4 p.m. — has saved many workdays for me. As compared to some other office environments and law firms, what really distinguishes us probably isn’t the policy per se, but rather a culture that supports its use when appropriate.

JANOVE: Has the firm’s approach to diversity paid off in any tangible way?

VAN HOFTEN: Although I can’t quantify it, I believe it’s been helpful in overall business generation and client relationships. Our clients are diverse, and having a diverse array of lawyers makes us feel familiar. Also, in the 11 years since my law school graduation, almost all of my friends have moved on from their original firms, some having made multiple moves looking for a place where they "fit." At Hanson Bridgett, there is room for all sorts of folks. This is shown in the relative stability of our attorney ranks. I joined the firm as part of a 5-lawyer class. Three of us are now partners here, one started his own firm and one moved abroad. I think that is remarkable and illustrative. For the most part, unless you are embarking on a different type of career or moving far away, attorneys stay here. I would bet our approach to diversity is a big driver of this success.

JANOVE: What advice would you offer leaders in other professional firms who desire to create a similar environment for their female or diverse professionals?

VAN HOFTEN: Take a long view when making and implementing policies, and consider how they will help build loyalty and experience for professionals who aren't like old-fashioned Stepford-type clones. Hire people with different experiences, and let them grow from there. Breaking people down to rebuild them in your own mold is outdated and stifling; flexibility, forethought and intentional openness to the views of professionals at every level of the organization builds organizational health, wealth and happiness.

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