This content is from: People & Culture

WIBL: Q&A with Cleary Gottlieb’s Romina Polley

Romina Polley, partner in the Cologne office of Cleary Gottlieb, speaks to IFLR managing editor John Crabb about gender equality, the pandemic and racial justice

We know that many legal and financial organisations are focusing on diversity and inclusion. However, when the issues often seem so complex it is difficult to know where to start. Where would you suggest organisations begin?

In my view, the first step is to make diversity and inclusion a strategic priority of the firm. At Cleary we spend significant time and effort on this topic in global partnership meetings and executive committee meetings. For example, practice groups need to present on the pipeline of candidates for promotion from the diversity and inclusion angle at executive committee meetings and are challenged on their commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, or DE&I, in the context of promotion processes.

As member of the European talent committee of the firm I can confirm how diversity and inclusion has become a central decision-making point in new initiatives and procedures because we understand that it has to be a part of every step of how we recruit, train and develop our young lawyers.

Based on your experience, where do law firms really need to focus in order to promote gender equity and, ultimately, bring more women into senior ranks?

In my experience the focus needs to be on mentoring and providing equal opportunities for female associates. Female associates need to get equal exposure to high-profile assignments, but also career development in the broader sense like speaking engagements at conferences, etc. In our feedback conversations we need to be mindful that women are often more self-critical and need more encouragement than men. In my experience it helps to signal early on to a junior associate that she has the potential to be promoted to a senior position. This usually leads to greater self-confidence of the candidate.

When I started in private practice in 1995, I was lucky to have a great mentor who is still my colleague today. At the time it was really difficult to find a senior partner who believed that women could be promoted to partnership. I remember being quite nervous when I was expecting my first child. My mentor and responsible partner at the time commented that motherhood would not be a barrier to success as long as I would continue serving clients as well as before.

At the time this was a terrific attitude from a male senior partner. Today we are much more supportive by allowing part-time work and helping young female lawyers to find childcare. Even more importantly, working part-time is no longer perceived as disqualifying for a career track at the firm. We have promoted women to partnership who were on maternity leave or working part time. Despite all these improvements I still observe that in many families the burden of combining professional and family life is not equally shared between men and women. And this is still a handicap for women who want to have a career.

We have also realised how important it is to build community among female lawyers. Though Cleary is an international firm, some of our offices in Europe are relatively small. By hosting joint events for female lawyers across the region, like on the occasion of this year’s International Women’s Day, we connect women from different offices with each other and create a sense of community.

Another useful element in career development consists in creating opportunities for female lawyers to learn about senior women in other organisations and how they have navigated challenges. In our Frankfurt office we recently hosted a meeting with a female board member of a large German company. The response was overwhelmingly positive as it is important for our young women lawyers to have role models in the firm and outside in the broader business community.

We’ve all seen numerous reports that the pandemic has been particularly difficult for working women and that employers have struggled to respond to the needs of this portion of their workforce. How has your firm addressed this?

It is true that in particular female lawyers with family responsibilities have struggled during the pandemic because the pressure to get things done from the home office remained and childcare responsibilities increased. My kids are grown up now, but home schooling has put a large strain on young families and I have seen younger lawyers, including clients, feel overwhelmed by multiple obligations. As noted above, usually the woman in the household steps back into the primary caregiving role if there are bottlenecks in childcare – which needs to change. Some men now take parental leave, but often this is done to go on a long trip rather than supporting the woman’s career.

As a firm you can help to create an inclusive remote working environment where people feel part of the team and colleagues with more bandwidth can temporarily take over tasks from challenged colleagues. We were also much more flexible on availability for VCs which worked out well in practice, because clients and authorities all had the same problem.

As a result of the pandemic, we have rolled out our new flexible remote working policy which allows lawyers to work two days per week from home. We know that we cannot snap back to ‘business as usual’. Flexible working is the new normal.

Since Summer 2020 and following calls for more racial justice in the US, many organisations have started to invest more significantly in diversity and inclusion (D&I) efforts. How has Cleary handled this development?

In response to those calls we have launched a global D&I project at our firm that is led by senior lawyers in different offices.

While the genesis of the project was the recognised need to invest in our racially/ethnically underrepresented employees, the project is also designed to make a real impact on gender equity as well.

As part of this D&I initiative we have launched a multi-module education series that discusses implicit bias, allyship and inclusive leadership across the firm.

We are also reviewing our reporting mechanisms and gathering information about where we may have issues that we need to work through that impact the career trajectory of women and others who may be overlooked in our community.

There is a need to better collect and leverage available data, because what gets measured gets done. We are beyond the phase of talking in the abstract about improvements, and need specific benchmarks that measure progress on the D&I front.

Thanks very much for your time, any parting words of advice for organisations that want to make headway?

D&I issues are very difficult to solve and doing so will take the same level of commitment and creativity we bring to our clients’ most complex transactions. This is a business issue at the end of the day (alongside an issue of humanity) and we should treat it as such.

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