New York Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton partner Margaret Peponis discusses gender disparity in the US legal proffession and how she and the firm participate in forums and groups focussed on advancing women lawyers

What obstacles have you had to contend with during your legal career that related to your gender?

I think the time during my career when I struggled to balance all of the things I wanted to do in my career with my personal life and responsibilities was when I had two children under the age of two who weren’t sleeping at night. I think many women face that challenge. When I speak to young women lawyers, I think they also struggle with issues that are commonplace for women across industries – e.g., access to mentorship from senior professionals, having equal advancement opportunities, having access to flexible work and parental leave policies; and being burdened with corporate citizenship responsibilities.


From the perspective of gender equality how does the environment which you work in now compare to the one you began your career in?

I have worked at Cleary my entire career, and it has always been and remains a collegial, supportive and inclusive environment. Our firm’s focus on diversity has evolved over the years to become even more welcoming to women, and we have numerous programs in place that focus specifically on the management, recruitment and development of female talent. For example, the firm supports a Women Lawyers’ Advisory Committee (WLAC), which I chaired between 2016 and 2018. The committee sponsors the creation of forums and tools to foster and strengthen the firm’s commitment to equity and inclusion for women lawyers. Through these efforts, the WLAC aims to increase the retention and promotion of women at Cleary. In addition, the firm supports a Women’s Working Group (WWG), which is an associate-led and founded resource group for female associates in all practice areas and at all levels of seniority at Cleary. The goals of the WWG are threefold: 1) to foster a sense of community and maintain a support and social network for female lawyers at the firm; 2) to organize activities and discussions in areas and on topics of interest to female lawyers and 3) to serve as a vehicle for female lawyers to share thoughts and concerns on a wide range of topics impacting their professional development. Over the years, both forums have fostered discussions which have led to valuable insights on the best methods for developing our associate population, particularly our women and diverse associates.


In general do you feel the legal profession within your jursidiction treats women and men equally?

I think the legal profession in the U.S. has made significant progress in recent years. Diversity and inclusion initiatives, including gender-equity efforts, have gained significant momentum. Law firms have built various mechanisms to hold leadership accountable for diversity and inclusion contributions and made strides in the promotion of diverse and female talent. In addition, various clients have started to hold their outside counsel accountable for the diversity composition of their firms, leadership committees, teams and promotion classes.


Are there any initiatives to promote gender equality in the legal profession in your jurisdiction?

Yes. The firm is a participant in the Kate Stoneman Project (KSP), which was founded by 20 women partners representing 10 leading law firms headquartered in NYC. KSP seeks to provide a forum to address issues of common concern relating to the advancement of women in the profession, as well as a platform to leverage the collective strength of the women partners in the KSP firms to advance leadership in
professional, civic, educational and charitable endeavors. Annually, Cleary participates in a KSP recruiting event targeting women entering the legal profession. A female senior lawyer from the firm participates as a panelist and typically shares her experiences with over 150 female law students and numerous attorneys attending the networking reception that follows. The NYC Bar also hosts a Women Partners roundtable, which creates opportunities to promote the full participation of women lawyers in the legal profession. The roundtable hosts discussions specific to the advancement of women in law firms including benchmarking against other industries, the economic case for retaining and promoting women and policies around parental leave and flexible/alternative working arrangements.

Do you feel women are well represented at partner level and in management positions in firms within the country where you are based?

Less than one in four female partners at a firm is an equity partner, according to a survey of more than 300 law firms conducted by Law360. Though the percentage has increased in the past five years, from 17% in 2013 to 21% in 2018, it’s still short of parity. We should think of increasing the number of female partners as an ongoing goal. Targets are helpful because they create short-term checkpoints, but we have to focus the discussion on how to cultivate the female pipeline and identify the right points of intervention to ensure continuity of the pipeline. The best mechanism to achieve this is holding practice groups/partners accountable for individual contributions to advancing diversity/gender-equity initiatives and promoting diverse and female talent.


What initiatives do you have in place at your firm to promote gender equality?

At Cleary, advancing the careers of women is one of our leadership’s top priorities. We continue to invest substantial resources to increase gender equality at the firm and in the legal profession overall. In addition to our many forums to facilitate initiatives and advance the conversation around gender equity, Cleary recently launched our Talent 2020 initiative with the goal of addressing the retention and promotion of our diverse talent. Talent 2020 will enable the firm to incorporate and enhance equity and inclusion within the four main areas of our talent development life cycle: recruiting, associate engagement and experience, lawyer development, and leadership development. By the end of 2020, we intend to have assessed and enhanced the hiring process to maximize the diversity of incoming classes, created a holistic experience for all associates, enhanced the mechanisms for monitoring associates’ professional development and improved inclusiveness in the talent development processes, and equipped our lawyers with the ability to build and manage relationships across difference. Talent 2020 also allows us to create a more agile and developmentally focused system and improve utilization to create a more balanced distribution of work among all associates.

To complement the already existing D&I-oriented professional development efforts, Cleary is hiring Attorney Development Managers (“ADM”) for each practice area. The ADM is responsible for coordinating a broad range of attorney development and staffing activities for a given practice area(s).


Do you think your firm compares well to others in your market when considering gender equality?

Yes. Cleary has been a market leader among AmLaw 50 firms in cultivating an inclusive culture that celebrates the values, experiences and perspectives of women and other diverse professionals for years. We regularly engage and partner with leader diversity and inclusion stakeholders inside and outside of the legal industry. We support D&I efforts with our clients and with numerous bar and national organizations focusing on gender equality in the workplace. Since 2012, we’ve been recognized as a top law firm by Yale Law Women for Family Friendliness and Gender Equality. The firm has also been recognized by clients Citigroup, GlaxoSmithKline, and Morgan Stanley for our D&I efforts.


What advice would you give to women in junior positions to encourage them to work towards attaining senior positions?

Know that you are just as capable as anyone, and try to take on new opportunities with courage and faith in your abilities. Understand that you may sometimes fail along the way, but that is true for all of us who take on challenging work and is part of the learning process.


What do you feel are the biggest obstacles for women in your jurisdiction joining the legal profession now?

One of the biggest obstacles to joining the legal profession today, not only for women but generally, is the length and cost of law school. It’s also difficult for law students now to navigate the multiple dimensions of pursuing a career in law – pursuing a small firm v. big firm, corporate v. ligation, private sector v. public interest. The legal profession is also going through a transformation with a rise in alternative legal providers, changing the ways law students think about career options.