MWL’s Partnership Leadership Council: Celebrating Leadership, Innovation & Collaboration

MWL's Partnership Leadership Council
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“Minnesota Women Lawyers’ Partner Leadership Council is focused on innovation and growth for our members, our legal employer partners, and MWL. The PLC provides an opportunity for MWL to more closely collaborate with our partners – by providing a forum for sharing ideas, tackling challenges, and driving change, while also ensuring that MWL remains relevant and responsive to the needs of our members. On an individual level, PLC representatives become part of a cohort of attorneys connected across legal employers that can learn from one another, further develop professional leadership skills, and ultimately rise together,” states Kristin Haugen, FY21-22 MWL president, co-founder of the MWL PLC and vice-president, Legal at LifeWorks.

Established in 2017, MWL created the PLC to bring together legal community leaders in support of MWL’s mission to advance the success of women attorneys. To that end, MWL’s partners are invited to appoint an attorney representative to the leadership group each year. Since its inception, the overarching goals of the PLC have remained constant: (1) to promote MWL’s mission and values by building collaborative relationships with, and between, its legal employer partners; (2) to bring leaders together in an exchange of ideas and best practices related to advancing women attorneys; and (3) to make specific recommendations to the MWL board of directors, particularly in light of MWL’s mission, values, strategic plan, and current trends in the legal profession.

“The PLC has provided a tremendous opportunity for MWL to capitalize on its relationships with key stakeholders and employers across the profession. Through this collaboration, the PLC supports the work of MWL and members also have the chance to meaningfully connect with one another,” states MWL Executive Director Debra Pexa.

Since its inception, members of the PLC have gathered to discuss the successes and the challenges experienced by women attorneys. Responsive to the needs and interests of PLC members and MWL partners, topics have included: leadership development; maintaining strong professional relationships; career satisfaction; best practices for the hiring, retention and promotion of women attorneys; and more. These gatherings have served as an important forum to share experiences and garner ideas. Recognizing and resources from other PLC mem-bers. MWL recognizes there aren’t one-size-fits-all solutions, MWL encourages members to use the PLC discussions to inspire creative approaches that will work well with their particular legal employer.

In a nod to the group’s growing success, the PLC collectively decided to “level-up” its efforts in early 2020. The group developed a more formal leadership structure, implementing a steering committee to provide further direction. The PLC is currently led by 2021 Co-Chairs Amy Erickson of Lathrop GPM and Navita Lakhram of Fredrikson & Byron, P.A., with steering committee members Allira Bailey, US Bank; Laura Bartlow, Zelle LLP; Shayne Hamann, Arthur Chapman; and Jessie Sogge, Quinlivan & Hughes.

Additionally in 2020, the PLC adopted the theme of “Opportunities for Professional Success,” with a specific focus on identifying strategies for retention, promotion, and pay equity for women attorneys. Given the intent to delve deeper into these critical issues, the PLC felt this focus was not only timely and relevant, but broad enough to encompass the many practice areas, practice types, and experience levels of PLC members and the diverse legal community. This year, the PLC also committed to creating a deliverable to be shared with the PLC’s legal employer partners in 2022. “The PLC is dedicated not only to identifying strategies for retention, promotion, and pay equity for women attorneys, but also to making a lasting impact in our community by sharing these strategies, encouraging legal employers to adopt policies that positively impact the professional success of women attorneys, and recognizing those organizations that take such steps,” states Erickson.

Despite the unexpected restraints of the pandemic, the PLC set out to actively explore its newly adopted focus area. Starting efforts last summer, PLC members participated in an elimination of bias seminar led by Ann Jenrette-Thomas, chief diversity & inclusion officer at Stinson LLP. Her presentation “Level-Setting: Oppression, Privilege and Intersectionality” provided an equitable, diverse, and inclusive framework for the PLC’s continuing efforts.
In early 2021, the PLC was pleased to welcome Kimberly Ess and Mark Girouard of Nilan Johnson Lewis who discussed the Equal Pay Act and how a pay equity audit can serve as important tool for supporting pay equity in the legal profession. The PLC explored not only the nuts and bolts of a pay equity audit, but also the operational components of how to communicate results to stakeholders and take next steps.

Earlier this summer, Jenny Gassman-Pines and Sybil L. Dunlop of Greene Espel P.L.L.P. joined the PLC to discuss their recent article, “Why the Legal Profession Is the Nation’s Least Diverse (and How to Fix It).” The article, originally published in the Mitchell Hamline Law Review, provided concrete steps legal employers can take to advance equity for women attorneys and attorneys of color. In particular, the authors and PLC members focused their conversation on recruitment and hiring practices, the critical importance of feedback, how to secure professional opportunities, and suggested best practices for each.

As intended, these focused conversations over the past year provided the PLC with the groundwork for its next goals and action steps. However, it was also impossible to ignore how each of the equity issues discussed were exacerbated and given new urgency due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Research during the past 18 months has unequivocally revealed how women in the workforce, and particularly women of color, have been disparately impacted by the pandemic, and most often negatively so. This reality added an additional layer of challenge and uncertainty to the experience for women attorneys. However, with each PLC conversation about equity issues and the related pandemic impact, members not only discussed the challenges, but the unexpected silver-linings of their experience. Moreover, PLC members spoke of the tremendous opportunities for significant change within the profession at this moment. Amid the uncertainty and upheaval, there was a chance to implement new and meaningful approaches for greater equity across the legal community.

With this context front of mind, MWL approached the PLC to conduct a comprehensive survey to hear directly from Minnesota women attorneys. The survey focuses on the pandemic experience and ideas for moving forward to further capitalize on lessons learned.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has made unprecedented changes to our personal lives, workplace environments, and legal profession. This survey is timely, and an excellent vehicle to capture the stories and experiences of our fellow Minnesota women attorneys. I hope that the results and findings of the survey will encourage employers to adopt long-term policies and practices that further facilitate the success and well-being of women attorneys, in a time of continuing uncertainty and change,” states Lakhram.

With this survey, the PLC recognizes its unique ability to engage MWL members and women attorneys from across Minnesota. In gathering both quantitative and qualitative data, the PLC intends to measure both common and unique experiences; learn about challenges, concerns and successes; and identify innovative opportunities to advance equity. The PLC anticipates the survey will be announced by the end of 2021. MWL members and women attorneys across Minnesota will be encouraged to participate. The PLC looks forward to sharing its findings with the legal community in the new year.

As the PLC continues to move forward, it is clear that its efforts represent a tremendous collaborative success. “I am thrilled with how the PLC has grown and developed in such a short time. It couldn’t have been done without the strength and commitment of MWL’s partners and hard work of the PLC steering committee and representatives. I appreciate the contributions made over the past years, and look forward to the PLC’s upcoming survey and the valuable dialogue that will follow,” states Haugen.

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