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Women attorneys at Thompson Coburn create their own leadership opportunities

Thirty years ago, when Mary Bonacorsi walked into a deposition, usually the only woman staring back at her was the court reporter.

Bonacorsi, the second female partner ever elected to St. Louis-based Thompson Coburn, now chairs a women’s initiative program that makes sure future women attorneys don’t face the same hurdles she did.

Debbie Rush, Evan Goldfarb and Mary Bonacorsi are partners at Thompson Coburn. Twenty percent of partners at the 355-attorney firm are women. Photo by Karen Elshout

Debbie Rush, Evan Goldfarb and Mary Bonacorsi are partners at Thompson Coburn. Twenty percent of partners at the 355-attorney firm are women. Photo by Karen Elshout

“I don’t think men realize that at big firms, the vast majority of women are primary providers” for their families, Bonacorsi said last month from a sunny conference room overlooking the Arch.

Now women attorneys at the 355-attorney firm make up 44 percent of associates and 20 percent of partners.

At Thompson Coburn, women attorneys created the changes they wanted to see, Bonacorsi said. They wanted a group aimed at developing the professional skills of women attorneys, so they founded the Total Commitment Women’s Initiative. They wanted funding for the group, so they asked firm management for the money.

They wanted to start up an annual social outing for women attorneys and women clients, so they hit the golf course. Then they realized that none of the women really liked to play golf.

So instead the women flocked to cooking classes, art displays at the Missouri Botanical Gardens and the Shakespeare Festival of St. Louis.

Debbie Rush, a public finance attorney at Thompson Coburn and a member of the firm’s management committee, said the program stresses the importance of mentoring. If they pair with a women partner, young associates can get critical tips on the professional culture of the office, things they wouldn’t pick up on their own, Rush said.

Whom should I contact with a concern? What are the best channels of communication? Which people in the office can accept constructive criticism and who can’t handle it?

Evan Goldfarb, another partner at the firm, said associates also need to learn about how the business side of the law firm works.

“You can’t always absorb the big picture right away,” Goldfarb said. “It’s important to understand the economics. You need to know it. It’s just not something they teach you at law school.”

This means poring over the firm’s income statement, pinpointing the types of clients who generate revenue and learning how to negotiate a fixed-fee arrangement with a prospective client.

“It’s not a death knell if you don’t understand it,” Goldfarb said. “But you’re much more likely to progress and be successful in developing your own business.”

Strong relationships within the law firm become essential when a young lawyer reaches her inevitable breaking point in those first stressful years, Bonacorsi said.

She said she has run interference with associates threatening to quit.

 “I’ve talked people off the ledge and said, ‘Maybe there’s a different way you could handle it,” Bonacorsi said.

The Women’s Initiative also has created leadership posts for younger women attorneys who wouldn’t otherwise have a chance to lead.

For example, partners Kim Eilerts and Cherie Bock stepped up to plan the firm’s next women client event. Partner Jen Baumann spiffed up the Women’s Initiative Web site.

“It gets your name in people’s minds,” Rush said.