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Legal Talent & Inclusion

How to Get More Women Attorneys in M&A: A Talk with White & Case M&A Partner Arlene Arin Hahn

Natalie Runyon  Director / ESG content & Advisory Services / Thomson Reuters Institute

· 6 minute read

Natalie Runyon  Director / ESG content & Advisory Services / Thomson Reuters Institute

· 6 minute read

Arlene Arin Hahn, of White & Case, argues that getting more women lawyers into the M&A practice area is not a pipeline problem, but rather a PR problem

Arlene Arin Hahn, Partner at White & Case in the firm’s Technology Transactions Practice and Global M&A Practice, last year argued in The Deal’s Dealmaker Quarterly that getting more women into the mergers and acquisitions (M&A) practice area in Big Law is not a pipeline problem but rather, a PR problem.

We sat down with Hahn to follow up on that article and drill down further on her thoughts.

Using “unicorn” status to your advantage — Hahn thinks women lawyers should be thinking about pursuing M&A as a practice because women are not well represented in that area. “I think right now is a really good time to leverage the fact that you’re a woman in any big law firm practice, but especially in M&A,” Hahn says.

She highlights two points to make her case: 1) women are more memorable in the practice because there are so few of them there; and 2) the data demonstrates that diverse teams perform better and drive better results. Hahn also points to the Mansfield Rule, the Move the Needle Fund, and Direct Women, the latter of which is focused on accelerating women lawyers’ representation on corporate boards, which will be an advantage to women M&A lawyers.

I think right now is a really good time to leverage the fact that you’re a woman in any big law firm practice, but especially in M&A.

From her own experience, she has used both her gender and her role as a partner to her advantage and to better drive change. “If you are a partner, all of a sudden your voice becomes louder and your reach becomes longer,” she explains. “People listen to you… internally and externally.” She recalls that getting others, especially partners, to listen to her ideas as a senior associate was a lot more difficult. Now that she is a partner, however, Hahn says she feels more comfortable having hard conversations around gender because she’s on equal footing with the other partners.

Many times, women are hesitant to use their gender as an asset, thinking it undermines their qualifications. Hahn recommends flipping the script and don’t view your gender as a liability. “If any aspect of your identity is going to be well received or will help you, then you should use it,” she notes. “I don’t see men feeling bad about using their attributes to their advantage, so I am not going to feel bad about it either.”

More women in M&A begets more women in M&A — Hahn says she also believes that having more women partners will result in more women becoming partners. “When I think about all the years that I never wanted to be a partner, it was largely because I never saw a female partner who resembled me, whose life resembled mine, or who seemed to be someone whose life I wanted to have,” she says. “You have to see it to want to be it.”

The Crux of the PR Problem

The word partner has a magical power and comes with expectations, explains Hahn. For so long, the title evoked power, legitimacy, validation, and status — much of which is driven by a male perspective. But many women, including Hahn, are not intrinsically motivated by power or status. Moreover, when a woman admits a desire for power or status, it is usually perceived negatively.

Arlene Arin Hahn
Arlene Arin Hahn of White & Case

Studies have shown, however, that women, in greater proportions than men, tend to care more about meaning, value, growth, and helping others. That’s why Hahn suggests that supervisors, practice heads, and law firm talent professionals reframe the partnership discussion with women to help them understand how the title can be a means to achieving their goals. One way to do this is by asking questions that assume a female attorney wants to be partner, such as:

      • “Why do you want to be a partner?”
      • “What part of being a partner excites you?” or
      • “What are your feelings about using your partner status to drive change or find meaning?”

Approaching the situation this way is a bridge, Hahn explains. “If your real goals are to flourish, learn more, help others to achieve the same, or to gain purpose and meaning from your job, then those goals actually become easier to achieve, once you have the power and status that come with being a partner.”

Expanding Industry Leadership Norms

Hahn also thinks that more women are needed to expand the industry norms of leadership — to challenge the ideas of what a leader looks like and what behaviors are acceptable for a leader to exhibit. The idea that the industry should stay at a place where the “male, cis, heterosexual standard” is the norm, is “antiquated,” notes Hahn. “It is not the way our population is going, and it is not the way our world is going.”

The only way to challenge this status quo is to embrace different leadership styles, images, and behavior norms. And that includes “a lot of women supporting women and the voices of different people across intersectionalities,” she says.

The role of women supporting other women —To help highlight the experiences of individuals with diverse identities, Hahn also urges women to support other women intentionally and explicitly, even when you may not agree with her opinions or methods “even if [you] disagree with the way that a woman partner has behaved or acted.”

“I try to never speak negatively about any of my woman partners to any man in power because I don’t think it’s necessary,” Hahn says.

A Note to Men: Lean Out & Use Your Influence

Finally, Hahn suggests that men do two things that will not only help women advance to executive ranks in all industries but also to alleviate some of the burn-out and stress that many women face. First, take on more of the “invisible work” both at the office (like administrative and non-billable matters) and at home (like child care or food preparation); and Second, use your influence to drive industry change by standing up for gender equity; for example, stipulating that the only way you will accept an honor or recognition, or accept an invitation to speak is if there is 50-50 gender representation in honorees or speakers on the stage.

To illustrate the latter, Hahn noted a LinkedIn post that went viral after a Mayer Brown partner in London asked to be removed from the influential Chambers UK 2020 ranking of solicitors for not including enough women in its partner rankings.