Advice for the Next Generation of Women Lawyers: Forging Your Path To Success

Last week, Linda Chanow, Director of the Women in Law Center, opened the Women in Law Institute with advice for forging success in law.  The Institute, a program for young women law students and early career lawyers, is sponsored by the Center and was held in conjunction with the Ms. JD annual conferece. Ms. Chanow comes by her knowledge honestly, having worked towards women's advancement in law for the past 15 years. Chanow opened with these key ideas:

  1.  Successful women lawyers, such as those who founded the Center want to support younger women on their career path.  Women like founderLinda Addison, who heard from many potential employers that "women can't be litigators," before Fulbright and Jaworski offered her a shot, are committed to changing the odds.  Addison now serves as the firm's U.S. Managing Partner.  
  2. Know that you will grow, change and develop throughout your whole career.
  3. Find the role models that work for you. You don’t have to turn into a guy.
  4. Embrace feedback to learn and to grow.  Don't ask your mentors to go easy on you. 
  5. If you want to succeed as a lawyer, you have to fight for it.
  6. Success is a function of some combination of work that is fulfilling, your employer valuing your contributions and manageable work-life balance. For example, a great part-time schedule without fulfilling work and contributions that are valued is unsatisfying according to the Center’s survey of 100 part-time partners.  Chanow advises that if you are not valued, consider whether it is because you are not doing valuable work or because others perceive it that way.  Either way, take action.

According to Chanow:

Women comprise 20% of state court judges, 11% of federal judges, 20% of law firm partners, 15% of equity partners, 4% law firm managing parters and 22% of corporate general counsel. And she challeged the group: You are the generation that can change these numbers. How?

Chanow's answer:

  1. Understand the myth of meritocracy-the myth that you will be promoted on good work alone.  Good work is the entry to success but it will not get you to the next level.
  2. Gain access to strategic tools:  High quality career-building assignments, business development opportunities (watch and learn from the top rainmakers, help them, volunteer to help them) and mentoring. Within the organization look for multilple people, men and women, with whom to build relationships and to find advice, skill building, and champions for promotion.
  3. Understand where the money flows to understand better your value to the organization.
  4. Be strategic about skill building.
  5. Work smart, don’t just work hard.  When do your partners and supervisors need you there for them? Take care of the things that are important to you when they do not need you. Think about what keeps your partner or supervisor up at night and alleviate their stressors so you are the associate or employee of choice. How do you know what matters to them?  Ask them. Talk with them about it. Get the good, energetic work.
  6. Find and maintain your balance.

And then Linda Chanow closed with wisdom from another woman lawyer leader named Linda, Colonial Linda Strite Murnane:

There is no such thing as "can’t."
There is such a thing as "won’t,"
"don’t want to,"
"don’t choose to,"
"don’t adopt this as my priority,"
but there is no such thing as "can’t."
"Can’t" represents a lack of choice.

And when we resign ourselves to a reality that does not include individual choice, we accept barriers others would impose upon us.

—Colonel Linda Strite Murnane, Esq.

Will this be the generation that changes the numbers, overcomes the barriers and refuses to resign? Based on my experience last week, I would say yes.


New Lawyers and the Push to "Declare a Major"

Bottom line, here’s my advice to law students who want to make a living as a lawyer:

Figure out as soon as possible what kind of lawyer you should be (based on some combination of your passions, abilities and financial requirements), direct your efforts inside and outside the classroom towards this end, and hit the ground running. 

This is not the advice I received as a young lawyer.  When I started with a “large” local firm in the early 1980’s, my advisors encouraged me to take advantage of the firm’s 2-year rotation program, working in various departments.  I declined.  Even though I was a real estate lawyer, the firm required me to run documents to the courthouse so I would know the judges and clerks (as every real lawyer should).  Senior partners in other departments frequently pulled me in on projects and I had a good idea of what their work was like. One of my associate friends moved through three practice groups in his first 2 years.  He went on to lead the firm.

Not so today. 

Today, students who know what they want to do and have prepared themselves through experience and coursework will be best positioned to succeed.  Weigh that against the ultimate success of doing work that feeds your soul and affords you a decent standard of living and you have defined the horns of the dilemma.  While waiting longer to “declare a law major” arguably results in a better choice, waiting may leave you with no choice at all.

It's not unusual for big law firms to ask students to choose one or two practice groups in which to intern after the 2nd year.  The firms' offers of employment typically depend on the practice group's vote and are attached to the practice group.  Gone are most of the opportunities to rotate through multiple sections.

Outside big law, the demands to choose early are just as high.  Want to work for the District Attorney?  You had better enroll in criminal clinic, take the requisite classes and get some internships.  Family law?  Anyone who can afford to hire you is going to expect results quickly and a high level of commitment to justify their investment in you.  If you hang out your own shingle, you have to know what you are doing. 

So how do you figure out early where to direct your efforts?  How do you figure out what kind of lawyer you want to be?

I have 3 suggestions:

  1. Know Yourself.  Take the time to understand what you enjoy, your natural strengths, and your needs for achievement, money, company, meaning, intellectual stimulation, security.
  2. Learn about legal practice areas and the challenges and rewards that each affords.
  3. Study the market.  What areas of demand match with your passions, skills and other preferences?