Women-owned law firms seek to sit at the table via certifications


Manhattan litigators Lisa Bentley and Anna Aguilar quickly realized that business retention would be crucial when the couple launched a boutique legal practice eight years ago.

“As litigators, just about everything has a finite limit,” said Bentley, who along with Aguilar began his career at Big Law firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher. “Cases end in settlement or litigation, so it’s important to have repeat customers or customers with different types of disputes.”

Their firm, Aguilar Bentley, has since landed clients including Morgan Stanley, Prudential Financial and payroll giant Automatic Data Processing, Inc. It has also added two other lawyers to its roster.

Bentley says the company’s certification as women-owned soon after its founding was a key part of its success. Even if the process was “heavy”.

“We definitely made money from a handful of cases that were certified,” Bentley said in an interview.

Small firms like Aguilar Bentley often obtain legal work through referrals from other firms who pass on issues they cannot handle due to conflicts of interest. But as large corporations increasingly demand diversity from their outside attorneys, certified women-owned firms can also tap into a distinct stream of potential clients.

“Businesses buy legal services today in a very different way than they did five years ago,” said Cynthia Towers, CEO of Legal Staffing and research provider JURISolutions Legal. “Certification will more often than not tip the scales” when a company has to choose between companies with similar experience and qualifications, she said.

Get certified

At least a handful of organizations offer a process to certify that a business is owned by women. Certifiers review operating agreements, loans and other documents to ensure women are at the helm. Women must represent at least 51% ownership and control of a business for it to be certified.

For example, the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC), a non-profit organization, partners with 14 regional organizations to review applications. Certification opens the door for women-owned businesses to connect with companies seeking a wide range of services, including legal.

Anna Aguilar and Lisa Bentley

The council has about 450 member companies, said Pat Birmingham, its senior vice president for marketing and technology.

The Federal Census Bureau counts 400,000 female lawyers in the United States, or about 37% of the country’s lawyers. Women currently make up more than half (54%) of law school graduates, according to the American Bar Associationwith over 19,000 women graduating from accredited law schools in 2020.

Women make up nearly half of associates at the nation’s 200 largest companies, according to a survey by the National Association of Women Lawyers. Yet lucrative partnerships and leadership roles in Big Law remain hard to come by. This has prompted some female lawyers to start their own law firms.
Some small-firm founders can rely on star power: Litigants Beth Wilkinson and Alexandra Walsh were already well-known as litigators when they launched the Wilkinson Walsh litigation boutique in 2016. Others struggle to stand out, relying on a handful of lawyers or fewer to keep the office doors open and juggle legal work and business development demands.

Certification offers small businesses the opportunity to get noticed by larger corporations as they seek to move away from legal teams that have traditionally been predominantly white and male.

Kelly Rittenberry Culhane, managing partner of virtual firm Culhane Meadows, said the decade-old firm was seeking certification as a women-owned business through the WBENC.

The organization has certified 18,000 women’s businesses in various sectors, including law firms and legal service providers. Certification costs are revenue-related, ranging from $350 for companies with annual revenue of less than $1 million to $1,250 for those with revenue of $50 million or more. dollars.

Women-owned businesses can also obtain certification to access reserved federal contracts. But women-owned law firms generally seek to be hired by companies for specific legal matters rather than seeking multimillion-dollar government contracts.

Culhane’s firm has also joined another group that focuses on corporate legal work. The National Association of Minority and Women-Owned Law Firms (NAMWOLF) requires certified women-owned firms to have three practicing attorneys and helps connect qualified firms to corporate clients.

These organizations “give you a seat at the table,” said Culhane, a Dallas-based attorney who spent nearly a decade at Akin Gump Hauer & Feld. His firm of 70 lawyers represents Kroger, among others. “We have developed an enormous amount of relationships through working in NAMWOLF.”

‘One more’

Joyce Tong Oelrich and Zohra Tejani, veteran Silicon Valley attorneys, set their sights on corporate legal provider listings when they founded TongTejani in 2020. The firm quickly achieved certification as a women-owned business .

“The certification was a plus,” Oelrich said, in an interview, “and it helped land our firm’s door” as an outside attorney.

Getting certified is often the first step in a long process of cultivating contacts and convincing corporate legal chiefs to hire them.

“As well-intentioned as companies are, they stick to what’s comfortable,” Culhane said, referring to the practice of general counsel hiring attorneys they know.

For Bentley, knowing your targets is important.

“We have to focus on the customers we want to attract,” she said. “It’s not about putting up billboards in Times Square, it’s about doing whatever you can in a disciplined way to attend conferences, meetings, send updates or write articles.”


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