Most of us know at least one woman doctor or lawyer. We might even be acquainted with a female airline pilot or astrophysicist. Traditionally, however, such professions have been dominated by men. As more and more women enter the fields of law, medicine, aeronautics, and other male bastions of employment, the demographics are shifting. Robert McKenna III, founding partner at the Huntington Beach, California-based liability defense law firm Kjar, McKenna & Stockalper LLP (KMS), who’s long felt the change was overdue, made an early commitment in his practice to help level the playing field for talented women who wished to pursue a legal career. “...Law has a history of being a very toxic type A, mostly man kind of environment,” McKenna explained. “I’ve seen great changes — and I just hope it continues on — but that’s the culture.”
How Parenting a Daughter Shaped Robert McKenna’s Goal of Empowering Women Perhaps some of Robert McKenna’s impetus in seeking parity for women in the legal profession comes from having been a single dad of two kids who wanted to ensure his daughter, Katie, would be afforded the same educational and job opportunities as his son, Matthew. From an early age, Robert McKenna made clear to his children that drive, talent, and interest — not gender — should be the deciding factors that determined their future.
Robert McKenna strove to serve as an empowering role model to both his kids. While his work schedule was demanding, he took on positions of leadership for both Matthew’s Boy Scout troop and Katie’s Girl Scout troop — although he admits his stint with the Girl Scouts was a bit out of the ordinary. (As a man, Girl Scout rules precluded him from camping within 100 yards of the girls, so McKenna routinely set up his tent outside the proscribed perimeter, but close enough to participate in Katie’s daily activities.)
“There were 14 girls, 13 moms, and me who would go on campouts. We did that for probably about five years,” McKenna recalled. “It was nice for me, and it made Katie feel really special that I did that for her.”
Women Lawyers are Gaining Ground
Per an Aug. 18, 2022 report by 2Civility, the communication channel of the Commission on Professionalism, an Illinois-based organization serving the state’s legal and judicial systems: “In 2022, 38.3% of lawyers were female, while 61.5% were male. The gains are notable, however, given that from 1950 to 1970, only 3% of all lawyers were women. And if women continue to outnumber men in law school, the upward trend may continue.”
As much as those figures are heartening, women lawyers still have a long way to go in order to achieve parity — especially at the top of the corporate food chain. While women make up an increasing cohort of law students and associates, they still lag far behind at the partnership level.
Law360’s Sept. 13, 2021 “Glass Ceiling Report: What You Need To Know” reported that while women comprise more than 50% of current U.S. law students, the preponderance of legal firms are not putting women on a management track. “Despite a packed pipeline of talent, women have long been underrepresented, and their numbers shrink dramatically at the uppermost tier of a law firm, dropping to less than a quarter of partners with a significant financial stake,” the article stated.
The report went on to reveal that female attorneys continue to fall short in their attempts to achieve parity among Fortune 1000 corporations, and although some gains have been noted in places such as Silicon Valley, female in-house lawyers still earn less on average than their male colleagues across the board.
According to Britta Stanton, a partner at Lynn, Pinker, Hurst & Schwegmann, a Dallas-based legal firm that deals in complex, multi-million-dollar corporate litigation cases, the best way she knows for women to get on the partner track is to lead by example. Stanton, who was instrumental in crafting her firm’s maternity leave policy for partners — as well as the first partner to use it — believes up-and-coming women lawyers need to witness firsthand that availing themselves of maternity leave and other flexible scheduling options doesn’t have to be detrimental to their careers.
“I think the fact that those options are there, and people actually use them make women feel more comfortable,” Stanton said. “...The world has changed, but people are a little scared to make use of…new pathways until they’ve seen someone else do it.”
Robert McKenna Thinks a Culture of Inclusion is a Win/Win for All
For women to truly achieve parity in the legal profession, Robert McKenna says those in leadership roles must be intentional about making the changes necessary to balance the scales. It’s something he’s made an ongoing priority in the hiring practices and retention efforts at Kjar, McKenna & Stockalper.
“We have one overall culture [at KMS] and I have a subculture,” McKenna explained. “The overall culture is creating a place where people who are young, and ambitious and want to be trial lawyers can come and succeed, where they will have access to our clients and our carriers, and that if they have the desire to go in a courtroom and try a case, we’ll take them with us to train them, and then we'll give them opportunities to go try those cases.”
And while he didn’t specifically plan to have more female partners than male partners at the firm, Robert McKenna isn’t really surprised it turned out that way. “I remember 10, 15 years ago…the thought never crossed my mind that I couldn’t be a father, a spouse, and a trial lawyer,” he said. “I know women who had to make that choice — that in order to be a trial lawyer, they weren't going to have kids — and I found that abominable. Sometimes the only thing I’ve got going for me is my kids. Work can’t satisfy all of those needs. So I made a point that whatever I was going to do, every opportunity I could give to a woman… and to have them feel valued, and respected, and appreciated.”
“When I started as a lawyer, you were kind of supposed to hide the fact that you were a woman, and hide the fact that you might have children,” Stratton recalled. “You weren’t supposed to make your office pink and you weren’t supposed to put up pictures of your kids. You’re supposed to put up your diplomas. [But] I just really liked looking at pictures of my kids, so I just put up [their] pictures…all over the place and… put my diplomas in a closet — which is where they stay.”
Letting Go of that Which No Longer Serves You Leads to a Better Future
Robert McKenna acknowledges that his race and gender have often given him an edge in the past. “You know how many breaks I’ve gotten in my career because I’m a white guy?” he said, making a statement rather than posing a question. So, when he eventually found himself in a position of authority, rather than perpetuating the old-boy network, McKenna (who also admits he has a penchant for backing the underdog) turned the status quo on its ear. “I mean, literally I [said], ‘You know what? Who’s going to get a break? She’s going to get a break. How about that?’”
“As women achieve power, the barriers will fall,” famously noted Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “As society sees what women can do, as women see what women can do, there will be more women out there doing things, and we’ll all be better off for it.”
As a father and a lawyer, Robert McKenna III couldn’t agree more.
WRITTEN BYSophie H.