Podcast: Women @ RopesTalk: Conversation with The Women’s Forum Co-Chairs
Welcome to our new podcast series, Women @ RopesTalk, featuring conversations with extraordinary women who are making an impact at work and in their communities. In this inaugural episode, partner Megan Baca interviews the Co-Chairs of Ropes & Gray’s Women’s Forum: Lisa Bebchick, Amanda Morrison and Kaede Toh. The Co-Chairs discuss firmwide initiatives aimed at recruiting, retaining, and advancing women in law, which initiatives are particularly important as gender equity continues to be a challenge for the legal industry and beyond. Listen to their take on the critical role of The Women’s Forum, the value of mentorship (and how to cultivate the best mentor relationships), and the advantages of greater gender diversity in law and business. In future episodes, tune in to hear Ropes & Gray partners interviewing prominent women leaders within and outside of the firm about their work, career highlights, and wisdom acquired along the way.
Megan Baca: Welcome, and thank you for joining us for Women @ RopesTalk, a podcast brought to you by the Women's Forum at Ropes & Gray. In this podcast, we spotlight extraordinary women who have had successful careers and interesting lives, and are also making a positive impact in their workplaces and in their communities. We feature women attorneys at Ropes & Gray in conversation with prominent women clients, industry leaders, entrepreneurs and others, about their careers and what's led to their successes, the challenges they’ve faced, and the hard-earned wisdom they've acquired.
My name is Megan Baca. I'm a partner at Ropes & Gray, based in the firm's Silicon Valley office, with a practice focusing on intellectual property and technology transactions. This inaugural episode will break format a little bit from our next episodes. This time, I’ll be joined by three of my wonderful colleagues at the firm—Amanda Morrison, Kaede Toh and Lisa Bebchick—who serve as our three Co-Chairs of the Ropes & Gray Women’s Forum. The Women’s Forum has played a vital role in fulfilling Ropes & Gray’s commitment to diversity and inclusion—and has really made an important impact on the careers of all of us speaking on this podcast today. I am so pleased to welcome this distinguished group of partners to our first episode:
- Amanda Morrison joins us from the Boston office of Ropes & Gray. She co-heads our private equity industry group, and among many other accolades, recently Corporate Counsel’s Women, Influence & Power in Law Awards recognized Amanda for her work in advancing and empowering women in law.
- Kaede Toh is a partner in our litigation & enforcement group from our Tokyo office. She’s also on our pro bono committee and has been especially active in promoting and enhancing pro bono work in Tokyo.
- Lisa Bebchick is a partner in our litigation & enforcement group in New York. Her practice focuses on commercial and real estate litigation and regulatory matters. On top of that, she’s a hiring partner for our New York office.
So thank you, all three of you, for joining me today. So first, let’s turn to you, Amanda. You have co-chaired The Women’s Forum at Ropes & Gray for several years now, during a period of time in which Ropes & Gray has been really recognized as a leader in advancing gender equity. So a couple of examples: for three years, Law360’s top ten list of “Best Law Firms for Female Attorneys” has included Ropes & Gray. The Chambers Women in Law Awards awarded us the “Best Mentoring Program” as well as the “Law Firm of the Year in Promoting Flexible Work Environments and Innovative Programs for Mothers.” And on top of that, since 2010, we have been named a top firm for diversity for women by the Vault guide. So can you talk a little bit about exactly what our Women’s Forum does and why it’s so important to the firm?
Amanda Morrison: Sure thing. Thanks very much for having us, and organizing this, Megan. We are really proud of the external recognition that the firm has received because it does reflect our efforts to advance gender diversity and equity. For example, in 2019, nearly 60% of our new partners were women. And today, women comprise 30% of our partnership, which is well above industry average. That said, we remain committed to continuing our efforts to recruit, retain and promote women at the firm to improve upon these figures. The Women's Forum, which is our women's initiative program, plays an important role in this commitment. The Women's Forum dates back to 1996, when a small group of women at the firm recognized both the opportunity and the need for something like The Women's Forum to bring together women to have conversation about the opportunities they faced as well as the challenges that they might face. Since that time, The Women's Forum has continued to play an important role for women attorneys at the firm in helping them navigate the course of their career and grow professionally, and address any challenges that they might face. The Women's Forum, in particular, is focused on providing opportunities for our women attorneys for professional development, mentoring, networking with clients, industry leaders and other firm leaders.
We also encourage our women attorneys to engage in entrepreneurial business development. A few of the initiatives we've adopted include the Joan D. Fuller Development Grant, which facilitates the pursuit of opportunities that will help our women attorneys achieve their professional goals. This grant is named after Joan Fuller, who was a private client group partner who became the firm's first female partner in 1973. Another of our initiatives relates to mentoring. We all recognize the benefits of mentoring, and in addition to the informal mentoring that happens, we've put in place a formal program to facilitate the development of relationships between partners, counsel and associates. The mentoring circles program provides our female attorneys with the opportunity to get to know one another across practice groups and amongst different levels of seniority. We're proud that the firm has been honored by Chambers Women in Law Awards for having the industry's “Best Mentoring Program.”
As I reflect upon all of the accomplishments of The Women's Forum and all of our plans for continuing the good work we've been doing, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the work that's gone into The Women's Forum by both my current Co-Chairs, Lisa and Kaede, as well as the many past Co-Chairs of The Women's Forum, who've been so committed to the development of a program to advance the careers of women. In particular, I would want to call out Jane Goldstein, Colleen Conry, Loretta Richard, Laura Hoey and Jane Rogers.
Megan Baca: Thank you, Amanda. So Lisa, as a Co-Chair of The Women's Forum, you've been extremely active in promoting events and creating opportunities for women to network with each other and connect. I know mentorship is really important to you and you've done a lot of speaking about mentorship. Can you tell us what you see as the value of mentoring generally? And really, how do you make it a priority and make time for it at the firm?
Lisa Bebchick: Sure, I'd be happy to. What I focus on when I talk to young associates is the importance of informal mentoring in developing relationships and seeking out mentors. And half of the mentors that I've had over the course of my career probably don't even know they are my mentors. These are people who I view as a mentor and they might not even know the impact that they've had on my career. And so I encourage associates to not just rely on the mentors that are "assigned to them," but to seek out attorneys that they work with whose practice they admire, or whose work-life balance they admire, or whatever it is that they see something in that they want to take something away from, and actually, go try to develop those relationships. And I also encourage particularly our female associates not just to gravitate towards women attorneys that are senior to them, but actually, some of my best mentors were male mentors. You also learn different skills from male and female mentors. And it's not gender related, it's just particular individual style. You know, one of my mentors who was really critical in my development was a meticulous lawyer who paid so much attention to detail, and another one of my close mentors was the exact opposite. And seeing that both of those styles can be successful and drawing from both of those in different circumstances has been really beneficial to me in practice.
So in terms of how I make time to mentor associates at the firm, I really believe in paying it forward. I know how critical it was for me to have wonderful mentors over the course of my career and I know that I wouldn't be where I am today. And I still rely on these people, whether they like it or not, but I believe it's really important. And I, again, look to organic relationships. So if an associate reaches out or expresses a desire to have a relationship, I love that. I find it more difficult in the formal setting. I love when associates come by or want to get to know me better. So it's one of those things you make time to do. It's really important.
Megan Baca: That's fantastic. So what is the most important or memorable piece of advice that you can recall a mentor giving to you over the course of your career?
Lisa Bebchick: So it came at a really crazy time for me in my career. I was a very senior associate looking forward to being up for partner. I was working on an incredibly high-profile internal investigation that turned into a criminal investigation and was working round-the-clock. And I remember the very senior partner I was working with came to my office—and I was working essentially for her—came to my office and said, "You know, you really need to take some time for yourself." And I looked at her somewhat perplexed. But she meant it and she sat down with me and said, "Listen, you're working like crazy, but you're not going to do the job that we need you to do for the client if you're burning the candle at both ends." I think she recognized in me that I wasn't doing any of that – no self care whatsoever. And as I've gotten more senior and I've become a mother, I have two small children at home, I've realized that you have to carve out some time for yourself, and for me, it happens to be my morning Pilates. But for someone else, it could be the need to see a Broadway show every now and then or something else that, you know, some hobby, or coaching a Little League team or something that is your protected activity. And we all know with this job and a high pressure career and client things that come up, that you may have to sacrifice it every now and then. But if you have the one thing that is yours, and that is something that keeps you grounded and sane, I think that that's important. And that advice coming from someone who I thought took no time for herself was really, really important.
Megan Baca: That's fantastic. So Kaede, you are based in Tokyo and you've had a really important role in building The Women's Forum at Ropes in our Asian offices. Can you talk a little bit about the landscape for women in law in Asia, and what specific challenges or successes you see our Women's Forum having in our Asian offices?
Kaede Toh: Sure. Thank you, Megan. In our Asia offices, 30% of our partners and 54% of our associates are women, which is well above industry average. I think this is especially remarkable when you consider how much the business culture in many parts of Asia is still very male dominated, especially Japan and Korea. There is still progress to be made, but the firm has been working hard at recruiting, training and retaining women attorneys. And we've put forth some innovative programs focused on career development and work-life balance that help all of our lawyers. And, for example, one of my themes as Co-Chair of The Women's Forum in Asia is I've always stressed the importance of internal marketing to our Asia-based associates, especially those who are looking to a long-term career at Ropes. Being in small overseas offices, the U.S. seems very far away—indeed it is—but having said that, we regularly have partners and firm leadership visit from the States. And I encourage these associates, both male and female, to make an effort to get to know the visitors, even though they might be in a different practice group. Try to get out of your comfort zone, say hello, be proactive, introduce yourself and make a new connection within the firm. I also frequently plan an informal lunch for our female attorneys when we have visiting female partners. For instance, when Julie Jones came to town a few months ago, we had a Q&A session with her over lunch. This was a very rare opportunity, so I invited our male associates as well. You know, it's all about diversity and inclusion. It was a truly invaluable time to hear and learn in person from our firm leader. It was like eight people lunch, and it's just a rare opportunity to ask anything you wanted to ask about Julie. Another thing I do is to make it a regular task of reminding our Asia-based attorneys about The Women’s Forum initiatives, such as the Joan Fuller Grant. Being in foreign offices, I want to make sure that everyone is aware of the wonderful global resources that the firm offers.
Megan Baca: So for a final question, let's do a round-robin. I'd love each of you to speak to what you see as the advantages of greater gender diversity in law and beyond.
Lisa Bebchick: I'll kick it off. So we all have seen the research that having a diversity of backgrounds and viewpoints can lead to better decision-making. Diversity of perspectives of gender or otherwise typically means you're going to have a more robust discussion and more thoughtful results, a more creative result. But to me, having greater gender diversity is really very simple. Gender has never been sort of an important point of my career development. It's become more important, I think, as I've become more senior. But it was always about doing good work, becoming the best lawyer I could possibly be. However, seeing other women senior to you, and walking into a meeting and looking around the conference room table, and seeing other women is comforting, it's reassuring, it's inspiring. And I think something as simple as having more women around, and I'm super proud to be a partner at this firm. I remember last year at our holiday party for The Women's Forum looking out at my women partners – they were 30% of the partnership here at Ropes. It's a one-tier partnership. It's really amazing. But we're still only 30%, so we have a lot more work to do. But it's just, you know, we don't sit around and talk about women's issues all the time – we barely ever get to do that. But just knowing we're all there for each other, and we're all in it together and are succeeding at it – and I think that's really important for the younger lawyers at the firm to be able to see that as well.
Amanda Morrison: I agree, Lisa. I think it certainly has multiple layers to it. We have seen the research that suggests decision-making benefits from greater diversity of perspective. And in the board context, for example, that having one woman on the board is great, but having two women on the board is that much better because they're able to be a support network for one another, and to emphasize and improve the discussion and the diversity of perspectives. But I think within the law firm context, it is really helpful to see that women have done this before and see the paths that they've followed. And I also think that it's really helpful for our clients to see the benefit of having a diverse team representing them, whether it's in transactional or litigation matters. Particularly as I think some of the clients are grappling with these same issues of not having as many senior women historically in their industries. And so to have women representing them and to see that we're equally as effective and bring the kind of counsel and trusted advisor role, and can play that role, is incredibly valuable for women who are considering entering the legal field. And then also as our clients think about what their own workforce and work population looks like.
Kaede Toh: Personally, I think that being a female partner at Ropes & Gray is terrific. We have so many phenomenal women leaders in this firm. And it’s great to have that network, because it only gives me more confidence to advocate for women in the workplace in Japan. The gender divide is big in Japan, and we’ve got to keep closing it. A couple stats illustrate how much room there is for change. Japan has the third-highest gender pay gap among OECD countries, and according to that same research, women hold only four percent of managerial positions in the country and two percent of seats on boards of directors. Given those statistics, Ropes & Gray is making big strides for women. We have women in partnership and leadership positions in the Tokyo office – in addition to having a team of talented female associates. Plus, at the end of the day, clients are relentlessly focused on outcomes – whether it’s here in Japan or in the other jurisdictions in which we practice. I always tell female associates that success is about doing good work, having confidence in yourself, getting good training, and seeking out opportunities and mentors who can take your career to the next level.
Lisa Bebchick: And I always like to tell associates to look for opportunities. So if there aren't a lot of women in the boardroom, maybe you want to be one of those pioneers. And we're 30% of the partnership here at Ropes, but we definitely want to be higher than that so there's plenty of opportunities.
Megan Baca: One final point on gender diversity and leadership. We are so proud to have Julie Jones as the chair of our firm, joining an incredibly small group of women at the helm of large, global law firms. And we're especially excited because she'll be joining us on a future episode of this podcast. So with that, Amanda, Kaede, Lisa, thank you all for participating in this wonderful and insightful discussion. And thank you to our listeners. For more information about Ropes & Gray's Women's Forum and our women attorneys, please visit ropesgray.com/women. Please also subscribe and listen to this series wherever you regularly listen to podcasts, including on Apple, Google or Spotify. Thank you again for listening.