Why don’t more women stick around at law firms to advance up the ranks? As managing partners and general counsel search for a solution to that problem, a small group of attorneys have devised a work-around.
This fall, Nicole Galli and Gabrielle Sellei launched Women Owned Law, or WOL for short.
It purports to be the first national organization devoted exclusively to women legal entrepreneurs and aims to help women who run their own firms flourish — by swapping business strategies and making client referrals to one another — outside the traditional structures of Big Law.
“It’s one of those things where, as soon as Nicole mentioned it to me it was like, it can’t possibly be that no one has thought of this,” said co-founder Sellei, who runs her own practice. “But in fact that’s what we found.”
The mission of WOL is to support women legal entrepreneurs, but not all women in the group must run their own firms.
Galli, a former Pepper Hamilton partner who started her own firm in 2015, said WOL started with just eight women a few months ago, who believe the next generation of significant law firms may well be women-owned.
In October, WOL held a soft launch party at the Philadelphia office of the tax and consulting firm Citrin Cooperman, where one of the eight founding members is a partner, and 35 women attended. Since then, Galli said the group has grown to around 150 attorneys from all over the country, New York to Texas, and that emails from interested attorneys have been arriving in her inbox on a near-daily basis.
It’s “a bit of a runaway train,” said Sellei.
WOL is still only making plans to officially register as a non-profit trade association, and has already collected “five figures” in donations, commitments from prospective members to provide pro bono counsel on key matters and is planning events in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and New York.
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The launch of Women Owned Law points to the growing organization of women lawyers, who are networking and finding ways to develop business in a male-dominated profession. In its most recent survey, the National Association of Women Lawyers found women make up about 18 percent of equity partners in the AmLaw 200 although they represent a far higher percentage of the total law school graduates.
But NAWL’s survey doesn’t take into account women who leave big law and practice on their own, as solo practitioners or at boutique firms. In fact, there is no precise count of how many women-owned law firms exist in the U.S.
“There just hasn’t been any coalescing around this,” said Galli, who said the lack of a count underscores the need for more infrastructure to support women lawyers.
Unlike NAWL, which represents women across the legal profession, WOL is dedicated primarily to women who are building a book of business outside of Big Law.
By banding together, the women of WOL hope to leverage their identity to help corporations meet quotas for hiring for women-owned vendors. WOL may take a cue from NAMWOLF, the National Association of Minority and Women Owned Law Firms, a non-profit trade organization founded in 2001 to build partnerships between minority and women owned firms and in-house counsel.
But whereas NAMWOLF requires prospective member firms to have at least three attorneys, WOL is open to solo practitioners, which fills a hole in the nascent sector.
“NAMWOLF isn’t really an option for me at this stage unless I get much bigger,” said Philadelphia-based appellate lawyer Virginia McMichael.
NAMWOLF also requires members to have high peer review ratings, client references and formal certification that firms really are at least 51 percent women-owned. The vetting process can take several months, according to the organization’s website.
The criteria were developed to make NAMWOLF members more attractive to Fortune 500 companies, according to NAMWOLF president Joel Stern. Stern said he supports any new organization focused on getting women-owned firms their fair share of business.
“The end goal is the same,” he said. “To stop admiring the problem we have and start solving it.”
WOL will have some membership requirements and likely a multi-level membership structure, according to Sellei, who said exact details still need to be worked out. “Membership will be open to those who support the mission of WOL, which is to be a national networking group for women-owned law and legal services firms, and to provide opportunities for women legal entrepreneurs to come together, support each other and help our businesses prosper,” she said.
Most of the women who spoke to Big Law Business about WOL said they hope to use the organization to grow their business and to overcome institutional and implicit biases against women in the legal industry.
“It’s a natural inclination for people to send business to people they can relate to,” said McMichael. “Men don’t intentionally not send things to women.”
Sellei, who heads WOL’s media outreach, said the group also plans to collect data on the number, location and sizes of women-owned firms to become a “clearinghouse of data and a source of information.” Currently, no such data exists.
“Just like there isn’t an organization dedicated to this particular sector, that means there’s also nobody who has done undertaking to understand it,” she said. “It’s been overlooked, and just correcting that will be hugely helpful.”
Clarification: A previous version of this story implied Nicole Galli left Pepper Hamilton in 2015. She left in 2010.