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April 5, 2021 FOCUS: Diversity

Diversifying Leadership: Growing roster of women lead Greater Hartford law firms


When Rhonda Tobin first joined Hartford law firm Robinson+Cole as an associate in 1990 the firm had a few women partners, something that wasn’t typical in the industry at the time.

That signaled it was a place where she could move up the ranks, she said.

Rhonda Tobin

“I could see that I could be successful at the firm because there were already women litigators there who had been promoted to partner,” Tobin said.

Thirty years later, Tobin was recently named Robinson+Cole’s first woman managing partner, overseeing the firm’s business operations and essentially acting as its CEO.

And she’s joining a growing roster of women who are leading Greater Hartford law firms. In fact, about a third of the 15 largest law firms in Greater Hartford are led by women serving as either office managing partners or firmwide managing partners, according to Hartford Business Journal’s Book of Lists.

The rise of female managing partners locally mirrors a national trend as women continue to climb the ranks of the U.S. legal industry.

In 2012 only 4% of U.S. law firms had women serving as firmwide managing partners, but that number grew to 19% last year, according to the National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL).

Meantime, 28% of law firms reported women serving as office managing partners in 2020, according to NAWL.

While there is still a long way to go before women reach parity with men in senior leadership positions — both in the legal industry and corporate America in general — local attorneys say the increase in female managing partners is largely due to intentional efforts to mentor and promote women at law firms.

“It is really a joy to see so many strong leaders, smart women who are leading firms,” said Leander Dolphin, one of three co-managing partners at Hartford-based Shipman & Goodwin, the region’s largest law firm. “There is, I think, something important happening.”

Mentorship key

The responsibilities of a managing partner vary from firm to firm, but generally the position is in charge of running the business side of things. Managing partners typically head up the firm’s strategic vision, its business concerns and day-to-day operations. Some managing partners also handle clients and cases while serving, but for many the management duties are full time.

Dolphin first joined Shipman her first year out of law school in 2004, and returned to the firm after a two-year stint at the Girl Scouts of Connecticut. She became part of Shipman’s new three-pronged managing partner setup earlier this year, after Alan Lieberman retired as managing partner.

Dolphin still practices, representing K-12 schools as well as higher-education institutions in cases; but now that’s in addition to overseeing some 400 employees and partners.

Increasing representation of women at Hartford firms could partially be diversity and inclusion initiatives coming to fruition, said Dolphin, who previously served as Shipman’s diversity and inclusion chair. Another part of it is a customer service matter.

“I think that our clients for a number of years have been saying to us and others that they want more representation and diversity,” Dolphin said. “Having different perspectives — having a woman’s perspective, having a person of color’s perspective — that leads to better decisions.”

As a co-managing partner, Dolphin said she wants to help continue the trend of more female lawyers serving in leadership positions. To her that means recruiting more women, and then continuing efforts to mentor and promote them. Mentorship has been important to Dolphin’s career, she said, and she counts as mentors other women managing partners in Hartford, like Moy Ogilvie of McCarter & English.

Moy Ogilvie

Ogilvie became managing partner for McCarter’s Hartford office four years ago, but the first woman to serve in that position came more than a decade earlier in 2003. Part of the reason there is more diversity in leadership positions is because there is an increasing number of women in law schools, Ogilvie said.

In 2016 the American Bar Association for the first time recorded women representing a majority of American law school students. That’s been true each year since, with female law students last year outnumbering men 20,829 to 17,206.

“I think in our industry we just reached the natural question of ‘[women have] been practicing for a long time, why are we not using them as leaders?’ “

Specific efforts to hire, mentor and promote women has been a large part of increasing diversity and gender parity among McCarter’s leadership, Ogilvie said. In the 2000s McCarter formed its Women’s Initiative, a group that works closely with firm leadership to mentor women in their development as attorneys and promote them into leadership roles.

Ogilvie said these efforts must continue because the visibility of more female leaders at Hartford law firms will likely get more women working toward becoming a managing partner one day.

“Seeing other women locally doing it is inspiring, and it gives other women in the area an understanding that there are so many opportunities for leadership,” Ogilvie said.

Gender parity

While more women are taking leadership roles, the legal industry still has a long way to go when it comes to gender parity, said Karen DeMeola, assistant dean for finance, administration and enrollment at the UConn School of Law and a past president of the Connecticut Bar Association.

Karen DeMeola

Data from the National Association of Law Placement’s 2020 survey show that among participating law firms, just 32% of non-equity partners and 21.3% of equity partners are women. When compared to nearly two decades of female law students equaling or outnumbering their male counterparts, DeMeola said, the statistics raise questions about how firms are going about promoting women attorneys.

Some factors holding them back could be rooted in negative assumptions about women with children — especially in an industry often focused on maximizing billable hours — and disparities in mentorship opportunities, DeMeola said.

However, the legal industry has been more proactive than others in working to level the gender playing field, DeMeola said. For example, in 2015 the Connecticut Bar Association created the Connecticut Legal Community’s Diversity and Inclusion Pledge and Plan, which 40 law firms and legal organizations signed. It’s a multiyear plan that deals with issues like recruitment, retention, assessments and training. Further, the profession in general has been working on diversity and inclusion efforts for about 20 years now, during which time some changes have arrived slowly, but surely.

For firms to keep increasing female leadership representation, they should continue to examine the role implicit bias plays in recruitment, retention and promotion, as well as emphasize mentoring opportunities, DeMeola said.

Employment law firm Jackson Lewis has developed an in-house education and training program for its lawyers — called JL Academy — that has played a role in mentoring and promoting women, said Tanya Bovée, managing principal of the firm’s Hartford office.

Tanya Bovée

Bovée, who has served as managing principal since 2016, said mentors were important to her rise to the top position since she joined Jackson Lewis about 17 years ago. That’s why she also sees efforts to mentor and promote women as key to increasing the number of females serving as managing partners.

“Mentoring is very important to me, and you might find that’s a common theme,” said Bovée, who still makes a point to encourage more experienced attorneys at the firm to make themselves available to younger lawyers in general and women in particular. “Mentoring is basically the opportunity to pay it forward.”

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