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.


Women Lawyers: So many achievers, where are the leaders?

So many achievers, where are the leaders?

Her question is particularly relevant for women lawyers. In a nation where women have comprised half of law school graduates for the past 10 years, a percentage that has steadily increased from 35% in 1985, how is it that so few women fill leadership positions in law firms, industry and government? A recent survey by the National Association of Women Lawyers revealed that only 15% of equity partners in America's largest law firms are women, a number that has changed very little over the past five years. And, according to theMinority Corporate Counsel Association, only one in five Fortune 500 General Counsel is a woman. Women comprise half of American voting public, yet women comprise less then 18% of the U.S. Congress.

At a reception sponsored by Marsha Clark, former President of EDS's health care unit, I joined a group of men and women leaders who gathered to discuss these questions with Doyle, a Hall of Fame sports journalist and former auto industry leader. When it comes to moving from achiever to leader, Doyle speaks from experience. Today women sports broadcasters are commonplace, but when Doyle entered the profession, some sports teams threatened to close locker rooms to reporters altogether rather than admitting her.  Doyle persevered, succeeded and now shares her own insights and those of over 125 women leaders she interviewed for her book.

How do women achievers become leaders?  Doyle's research suggests seven components:

  1. Discover your purpose.  Know who you are, whom and what you care about deeply and lead from that awareness.
  2. Raise your voice. Get past your fears, especially of criticism from others, polish up your communications skills and share your vision.
  3. Break the rules.  Doyle says that women leaders break the rules, but they do that with skill and knowledge.  
  4. Claim power.  Don't wait for someone to give you power.  You have to claim it.
  5. Drink at dangerous waters. Travel, spend time with diverse people, interact with your rivals and take risks.  According to Doyle, it is in these "dangerous waters" that leadership is forged.
  6. Get back in the saddle.  Welcome and learn from setbacks and keep moving.
  7. Embrace the strength of your "womaninity."  To fully understand this concept, you need to read the book.  But here's the gist:  Effective women leaders don't try to be one of the guys. Rather they "relax into their own skin" and bring to the leadership table their unique skills and strengths. They often approach things differently than the guys would, but are equally or more effective.  

Why is it important for women to lead?  Doyle says "size matters."  Citing a 2009 report published byErnst & Young, Doyle reminds us that when female leadership reaches a critical mass in an organization, specifically one-third of the highest level leaders, bottom line performance increases significantly.  For the typical law firm management committee, that translates to 3 to 4 women members.

Doyle closes her book with a quote from poet and author Maya Angelou that pretty much sums it all up:

If you’re born a girl, grow up and live long enough, you can become an old female. But to become a woman is a serious matter. A woman takes responsibility for the time she takes up and the space she occupies.
— Maya Angelou

If your firm or organization has more than one-third women in top leadership positions, I would love to feature you in my blog and share with others what your experience has been.