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Setting a New Standard for Women in Law

Vantage Point: Big Law in Transition Kimberly Leach Johnson

Elizabeth Anne “Betiayn” Tursi has spent most of her storied career in legal marketing and helping women in law achieve their professional goals. Twelve years ago, she co-founded the Women in Law Empowerment Forum (WILEF), which has grown into a premier organization dedicated to women working in the largest law firms and corporate law departments in the United States.

Kimberly Leach Johnson, Quarles & Brady’s Chair, spoke with Betiayn about how WILEF is helping set a new diversity standard for women in the legal profession, and how its Gold Standard Certification has become a measuring stick for legal employers looking to achieve greater representation of women in positions of leadership and influence.

Kimberly Johnson: You’re passionate about law firm marketing, business development and women in law – what drew you to them and how did you first get involved?

Betiayn Tursi: I worked briefly in the fashion industry in between legal roles, and when I returned to law firms in the mid-1980s, they were starting to hire more marketing executives. In the late-1990s, I was approached by a woman partner who asked me if I could assist with a professional event for her group – the ABA Women Rainmakers. So, we held a cocktail party and generated so much buzz that it was featured in the New York Law Journal. Despite not being a lawyer, I was invited to join the executive committee of the Women Rainmakers, and I eventually worked for the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession, where I saw first-hand how difficult it was for women to climb the ladder in the industry. That’s how I became involved in these causes.

KJ: So, from that you formed WILEF?

BT: I remained involved in women in law issues for a while but eventually took a year off and left Manhattan. I consulted a lot and eventually became Editor in Chief of Marketing the Law Firm. During this time, I remained in touch with many women from my previous stints, but in 2007, I was approached by RR Donnelley to create an organized women’s initiative involving several of their law firm customers. I agreed to help and that’s where WILEF spawned from. RR Donnelley fully funded the initiative until 2009, at which point I realized I wanted to continue this type of work – it’s really a labor of love. I already had established relationships with other law firms, which were quick to sponsor our new programming. It accelerated, and we soon became an international organization.


KJ: What accomplishment of WILEF’s are you most proud of?

BT: Our biggest accomplishment was the creation of the Gold Standard Certification, which recognizes law firms that have women in leadership positions. Qualified firms must have more than 300 practicing lawyers and satisfy  the first criteria plus three additional criteria: 1st Criteria) A minimum of 20 percent of equity partners must be women or, alternatively, at least one-third of lawyers who became equity partners in the past year must be women; and 2nd Criteria) 15 percent of law firm and U.S. branch office heads are women equity partners; 3rd Criteria) 20 percent of the law firm’s governance committee are women equity partners; 4th Criteria) 20 percent of the law firm’s compensation committee or its equivalent are women equity partners; 5th Criteria) 15 percent of the top half of the law firm’s highest compensation equity partners are women; or 6th Criteria) seven percent of women equity partners are women of color or, alternatively, three and a half percent of women equity partners identify as LGBT.

As of June 1, 2018, 42 law firms were listed. The law firms that do receive certification are those who are very forward-thinking, and should they ever fall off the list, they are highly motivated to get back on.

KJ: What are the positive changes you’ve observed for women in working in the legal profession?

BT: There’s certainly a greater number of women working at law firms – and that’s a good thing. With increased numbers comes more clout and comradery, and from that law firms have created their own women’s initiatives to recruit, retain and develop young lawyers. We’re also a growing number of women leaders – and the more seats at the table for women who can exert influence, the better.

KJ: What impact, if any, have the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements had on the legal industry?

BT: On the one hand, it’s been incredibly energizing for women in the workforce and the public response has been extremely passionate. On the other hand, it may be causing some men to become more apprehensive and not engage with women in the workplace as they normally should. Most importantly, though, it has caused many organizations to re-evaluate their own policies, including sexual harassment and pay equity. And those discussions must involve both women and men working at law firms.

KJ: What are some of the key initiatives you’re working on right now?

BT: We’re starting the WILEF Equal Pay Project in 2019 and want to raise more awareness around that issue. We’ll be addressing three things: 1) How law firms view pay parity; 2) What they’re doing to address the issue; and 3) How best to promote these stories and perspectives through social media. Our examination won’t be public, initially, but we’ll assess the situation and determine how pervasive these issues are. We’ll likely see more compensation-driven lawsuits in the future, but we’re more focused on diagnosing the problem and coming up with a proper solution.