Joe Conroy, Cooley

by | Jan 25, 2017

Few law firms have matched the financial performance of Palo Alto-based Cooley in recent years. After double-digit revenue growth in 2014, the firm followed up with enviable numbers again in 2015, posting a 21 percent increase in net profit and a 14 percent increase in revenues, according to figures from The American Lawyer.

Steering the firm since 2008 has been CEO Joe Conroy, who has successfully led the firm’s foray into key markets, notably London in 2015. Last year, Conroy was chosen as “Transatlantic Law Firm Leader of the Year” by The American Lawyer.

Conroy recently spoke to The WILEF Tribune about the firm’s approach to promoting women, which he sees as vital to Cooley’s success.

Cooley has made WILEF’s Gold Standard for the last five years. Why does the Gold Standard mean so much to Cooley?

The Gold Standard Certification (the only one of its kind) is something we’re really proud of. But contrary to what some folks probably think, we don’t manage to the certification—we don’t look at it as an end point.

In my opinion, the certification shines a big, bright light on this critical issue. It highlights how important it is for our industry to get better at recruiting, retaining and promoting women—not just into the partnership but to all impactful leadership positions at a global firm.

You don’t manage to the survey, or to the metrics, but clearly you’re doing something right. 

I think at Cooley we do a lot right. It starts with something that sounds pretty simple, which is repetitive and consistent communication about how critical this issue is to us.

That communication starts at the very top. It happens in every partner meeting when we talk about our priorities. It happens at the practice-group level, in the committee that we have to choose our new partners internally, in the processes we have in place to recruit our new lateral partners and in how we compensate our partners.

For example, we ask our partners to discuss their own performance. One of the things we’ve been asking them to comment on is what have they done to demonstrate in a meaningful way their personal commitment to the institutional goal we have of making this place more diverse and inclusive.

Each year I announce four or five high-level firmwide priorities. Each year one of these priorities is the commitment to becoming substantially more diverse and inclusive.

You don’t check boxes and I get that point, but at some point, metrics do matter. Is there one that’s more important to you than others?

We look at a bunch of different metrics, but what we really try to assess—and sometimes it is less tangible and hard to assess—is the impact that the women partners in the firm are having. We also look at practice leadership positions and certain key committees as well. If at the end of the day we can say there are more women in the room making a difference, moving the needle, then I feel good.

How do you see your role in promoting women?

I see my role as chief evangelist and—drawing on my Catholic-school days—a dean of discipline. It’s about creating the broad recognition around the imperative of the situation and driving us to progress. Everybody here knows it, because I’ve made no secret of my personal commitment to this.

Let’s talk about the industry in general. Is there something about the Big Law firm model that needs to change to really advance women? 

Nobody anymore dares ask me, “What is the business case for diversity in Big Law?” It’s the silliest question. The fact that we’re even asking it means we’re still running around with loin cloths in the Stone Age.

We have an aspiration in this law firm to be one of a very few elite law firms representing the world’s most dynamic companies and institutions. We will not get there unless we are substantially more diverse and inclusive. For some law firms, that’s too much of a mindset change. Many big law firms are not flexible, and in an industry based upon talent acquisition and retention, that’s problematic.

The other part of it is cultural. A lot of firms say they have a compensation culture that incentivizes collaboration and the sharing of opportunity, but most do not. We do. And if you have a collaborative culture, and if partners who are not underrepresented know that it is part of their job as a partner and as a basis on which they are compensated to fix this problem, then you have the cultural wind beneath your wings, if you will.

Speaking of compensation, do you have any thoughts about recent pay equity lawsuits in the news?

I think they bring a certain amount of transparency and enable a discussion. This is not just good for the law firms that are doing things wrong, but also good for law firms that are doing most things right. I mean, we look at some of these metrics and it causes us to have conversations and to engage in processes in which we may not otherwise participate.

In our compensation process this year, we shared with a working group of women partners some thoughtfully crafted compensation data relative to how women were faring over time compared to similarly situated men. We cut that data up in all different ways, and were intentionally provocative about it.  We then asked them, “Tell us what you think about that.” So is that something we did because of the lawsuits? No, but in an environment where there are lawsuits, I think it causes discussions. It certainly did in this case. And we carried that conversation into our full compensation committee. Bottom line, I just see it as transparency.

Who are some of the women who have shaped your career and views on diversity?

I really have three answers.

First, my daughter and eldest child, Erin. She’s 30 now. Growing up, she was the apple of my eye. In addition to being kind and wise, I really wanted her to be tough and independent. At some point, I figured out I probably did too good a job of that! She grew up to be this fiery, independent person, possessed of world views very different to mine. Today, I have a different relationship with her. But I had to do something that is not innately easy for an older white guy like me, which is to step into the shoes of a young woman who is building her career and confronting obstacles. I learned so much. So it was in my own home that I started thinking in a different context about these issues, becoming much more committed to them professionally. I am most proud when my daughter will read something about Cooley or hear somebody say, “Hey, you know, your dad has really made a cause of diversity—he is really committed to this.”

My views also have been shaped by a number of my women partners at Cooley who have proven that they can do it all. To name just three, I am talking about the likes of Kay Chandler, Sonya Erickson and Barbara Kosacz—leadership partners who have prospered in a man’s world, if you will. Watching these partners not just succeed but have successful personal and family lives, while becoming leaders in an elite global law firm. Most importantly, they have made it their own personal responsibility to lift others up and help sponsor them. That’s inspirational to me.

Lastly, I want to share my admiration and respect for WILEF’s founder Betiayn Tursi and Cooley partner Shira Nadich Levin. It was Shira who connected me with Betiayn, who leads an organization that continues to do so much great and impactful work promoting equality for women in law.


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