Reflections of Building a Culture to Support Women Lawyers
by T. Ryan Durkan, Managing Principal
This year, we lost Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She was a trail-blazer for women lawyers. She attended law school at a time when few women did. She spent much of her career advocating for women’s rights and gender equality. So, it was shocking to read that she was the first woman in history to lie in state at the U. S. Capitol. The tradition dates back to 1852 and honors government or military leaders. In over 168 years, no woman leader has been deemed worthy to receive this honor. One more reminder of yet another glass ceiling, yet it should not really be surprising to me. On a regular basis, our various bar journals report on how women are consistently departing from law firms. One survey found that over 45% of law firm associate classes are women, but only 20% of equity partners are women. As a woman managing partner who is about to enter her 40th year at HCMP, I want to share my reflections on what kept me here, and how our inclusive culture can build a workplace for women and all our lawyers to finish their careers at HCMP.
Reflections on the Power of Encouragement
Certainly, I must acknowledge I come from a family of privilege where I had two involved Irish American parents, both of whom encouraged the education of all their children. We were not wealthy, just politically prominent. My father signed over his Veteran’s benefits to pay for my room and board at college. Hard work was expected in return. I am public school educated, K-12, WSU and UW Law. While public education was an economic reality for me, my public-school education exposed me to a great diversity of people and thought that I had never experienced in my small town of Issaquah, Washington. Sure, there were doubters along the way; “Why waste money on law school if you are only going to get married someday?” That was the mindset of some in the Issaquah High class of 1974. Fortunately for me, that was not the mindset of my high school English teacher and advisor, who encouraged me to aim high. Margaret Davis, I still remember her. So, reflection number one is to understand the power of encouragement. It is our goal to build a culture that encourages women and all young people to follow their dreams. A little encouragement goes a long way.
Reflections on the Power of Mentors
I am also fortunate that I found HCMP, where I started in 1981. Yes, there were women lawyers here at that time, but equally as important, there were men in power who fostered the careers of women. I was assigned to the land use group, where I was fortunate enough to be mentored by the father of land use himself, Jerry Hillis. At first, I was mortified because I never took a class in land use. “Perfect!” he said. Together with other senior lawyers in the group, I was not only taught the substantive law, but I was also given direct client responsibility early in my career. Business development skills for women can evolve differently than men. At the time, I did not golf! So, bonding with clients on the links was not an option. But, I was exposed to other opportunities to meet with clients, and attend events. I was given credit where credit was due. They expressed confidence in me in words and deeds, and slowly but steadily my skill-set and network grew. The firm’s environment was not competitive, it was supportive. This remains true today and it is a key aspect of our culture we strive to foster. This is my second reflection. The power of positive mentorship is critical to building a culture that embraces women and diversity.
Reflections on the Power of Leadership Development
While I have enjoyed an amazing career as a land use attorney, I have equally enjoyed many opportunities to serve in community leadership positions. I have served as President of the Environmental and Land Use Law section of the WSBA. I was appointed by two Governors to serve as chair of the Land Use Study Commission. But, my passion is education. I have served as chair of a K-8 Board of Trustees, the chair of a high school Board of Trustees, and a Chair of the WSU Board of Regents. These community leadership efforts take a tremendous amount of time, but HCMP provided support for these endeavors. When I was asked to serve as a Regent, I met with our then-managing principal Lou Peterson to discuss it. He said, “What is there to discuss? You have to do it!” While these are great ways to serve the community, they also build leadership skills necessary to law firm management today. Women can lead in different ways that strengthen a firm. They can be bias-interrupters; because we have done something one way for decades, doesn’t mean it is the right way for today’s times. I am proud that HCMP continues to foster leadership opportunities for women and others. We have an attorney serving as President-elect of the Washington Women Lawyers. HCMP women demonstrate leadership in organizations like CREW (Commercial Real Estate Women), while other HCMP attorneys serve in leadership for LGBTQ organizations. During this summer of civil rights reckoning, it was our HCMP associates who led the way with a plan to make our law firm more equitable. These are leaders who will lead our firm in future years. So, my third reflection is the power of fostering leadership opportunities is the gift that gives back and keeps our firm evolving in a positive, fresh way.
Reflections on Preserving our Firm Culture for the Future
Today, I have the honor and privilege of serving HCMP as the managing principal. It has been a tumultuous time in the history of our nation and city, with unprecedented challenges for law firms. And yet, I am extremely optimistic about the future of our firm. Yes, the business continues. But more importantly, the culture we value is alive and well. As part of our strategic plan implementation, we have a top-notch administrative team, including a COO, an HR Director, Business Development Director and IT Director. We have a woman-led accounting department and strong, engaged professional staff of legal assistants and paralegals who keep the trains running while taking great pride in their work. We have revamped policies, like our parental leave policy to be more in line with today’s world. We have updated sexual harassment prevention policies and training. We are investing in our systems. We are investing in our people. So, my final reflection is on the importance of preserving a culture that attracts and retains talent. I am proud of the work we have done to foster a culture to enhance the retention of women and our other young lawyers. While our work is far from done, I think RBG would approve.