May 18 Luncheon – Women’s Initiatives: Bridging Professional Development and Business Development

by Rosemarie Yu on June 16, 2016

“You know we have to focus on a problem when the number of men and women starting off in law firms is 50/50 but then women are only at a 22% partnership level,” said Shira Nadich Levin, partner at Cooley LLP. The solution? The law firm Women’s Initiative.

Ms. Levin, who chairs the Cooley Women’s Initiative, made her comments at NYLMA’s May 18 luncheon, “Women’s Initiatives: From Professional Development to Business Development.”  She was a featured panelist along with Julie Cohen, Marketing Director at Sidley Austin LLP and Tracy Fink, Director of CohnReznick’s Executive Women’s Forum.  Diane Costigan, partner at SLJ Shannon, LLC, a legal talent management consultancy, moderated the session, which was hosted by Cooley LLP.Panelists (l-r) (Diane Costigan, Shira Nadich Levin, Tracy Fink, Julie Cohen)

The panelists discussed in-depth the support networks provided by Women’s Initiatives groups – their value, how to start them, roadblocks and what they hope will be the future of these programs.

“We plan meaningful events and experiences that create value to those who attend,” said Ms. Fink about the mission of the Executive Women’s Forum, which she created as a business development initiative for CohnReznick, the accounting firm where she was in a marketing director role.

Ms. Fink formed the EWF a little less than a decade ago, when women’s initiatives were not as prevalent as they are now. Women were struggling with balancing their lives and “we didn’t have millennials who were very vocal about the workplace.” The Forum has since become a huge success, aligning with the strategic goals of each office, including bringing in business, enhancing the firm’s brand, and creating a haven for female employees and clients to develop and deepen relationships.

Ms. Fink envisioned that the Forum would offer events on substantive issues.  What she found is that “women came and said, ‘we want to talk about what really matters in our lives.’” So, programs today are an eclectic mix of business and life skills, such as the power of kindness, mindfulness in the workplace, and a women’s golf event. “Through the EWF, we’ve introduced more than 350 women to golf,” she stated.Panelists (l-r) (Diane Costigan, Shira Nadich Levin, Tracy Fink)

One particularly successful event that Ms. Cohen hosted for her group at Sidley featured a female poker expert who taught the group how to play poker and use poker skills to present themselves to clients and peers. “We had more than 150 people. The women were letting their guard down, and they used the time to connect with clients,” she related. The program received such great feedback that the group did a follow-up event a few months later for an “open play” poker session that attracted even more attendees.

Cooley’s Women’s Initiative created two unique programs that have improved life at the office for women attorneys: connection circles and the liaison program. Connection circles, explained Ms. Levin, are what the Cooley Women’s Initiative came up with when the members realized a strict mentoring program that paired mentor to mentees was not effective enough and required constant follow-up with each mentor to make sure the system was working.

They instead created groups of eight to 11 female members at various levels who get together informally. “We even planned somebody’s wedding at our last gathering,” she joked. But these gatherings enable the members to form much better connections than one-on-one pairings.

The liaison program came about in a year when several young women happened to take maternity leave at the same time. When they returned, the women felt that their re-entry was not really noticed.  As a result, the firm now assigns a liaison to each woman on leave to keep in touch during the leave and help them with issues upon their return. “It has made a complete difference with little effort,” Ms. Levin reported.Panelists in action (l-r) (Diane Costigan, Shira Nadich Levin, Tracy Fink, Julie Cohen)

When Ms. Costigan asked if they encountered any obstacles, the panelists all cited the usual resistance: why should there be a group just for women?  “Because,” said Ms. Fink, “when women succeed, everyone wins.” In a professional world where clients expect diversity from their law firms, “creating that culture is important,” said Ms. Cohen. “There’s no shortage of information on the business case for diversity,” Ms. Levin added.

“Creating a committee won’t solve all your problems,” stated Ms. Cohen, “but you can empower women to go up to the men who meet on their own and say ‘I’d like to join you next time.’”

Rosemarie Yu is Principal of Rosemarie Yu, LLC, a New York-based communications consultancy specializing in professional services. She can be reached at


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