Even though great strides have been made in the legal profession, the industry can still be extremely tough on women. I know the long hours, drudge work, and occasional cut-throat behavior can be difficult for men, too. But the fact remains that law firms were “boys only” clubs until just a few decades ago, and some habits are hard to break.
The National Association of Women Lawyers released a report in mid-July asking law firm leaders to work harder to ensure the advancement and equal treatment of women. The report places the onus for change on firm leadership, which is exactly where it belongs. However, there are things that women can do to make their law firm experiences more agreeable and productive.
One of the things women attorneys regularly complain about is the double standard at play in some law firms. They say that if they are forceful and direct, even in situations that call for that type of behavior, or if they speak up in meetings, tell partners about their recent accomplishments, or remind a paralegal of the proper way to file a brief – all things that are pretty common practice among male attorneys – they are labeled as brash and arrogant or referred to as a “bitch” while guys who act the same are admired and referred to as effective "pit bulls."
What can you do if this happens to you? Pay attention to the behaviors that garner negative reactions and adjust accordingly. If someone calls you on behavior that you think is appropriate for men but deemed inappropriate for women, try to help them see the inconsistency: “Thank you for noticing. I learned that technique from Joe. He is so good at communicating his opinions.”
If the person is above you in the firm, ask if they have a suggestion for how you can improve your handling of this type of situation in the future. This serves many purposes: As a new attorney, you should be willing to admit that you have a lot to learn, that you are interested in professional advice, and that you know how to handle criticism.
The best defense is often a good offense: You need to consistently and continuously demonstrate that you deserve to be where you are. This can silence even the loudest critics. How do you do that? “By always being at the top of your game and handing in accomplished work,” explains Maria Feeley, a Pepper Hamilton partner and co-chairwoman of the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Committee on Women in the Profession.
As you probably discovered during your summer associateship, some of the people you’re producing work for may have what Feeley refers to as a “one-strike system”. It may not be fair, but that’s the way it is, especially for people who are just starting out. So triple-check everything you do.
But, wait a minute. You have to get the work, before you can prove how well you can do it. Right? If the best assignments keep going to the guys, what should you do?
“Sometimes, you have to be aggressive. Go up to the person you want to work with, or talk to the firm’s assignment coordinator,” says Feeley. “The key here, as always, is to be prepared. You have to be ready to explain why you want to work on a particular project. This is your chance to impress the decision makers. Convince them how much you would bring to the table.”
According to the third edition of the book Presumed Equal: What America's Top Women Lawyers Really Think about their Firms by Lindsay Blohm and Ashley Riveira, female associates need to “be proactive and aggressive in going after what they want and need within the firm. They need to ask for important assignments and seek out the advice and mentorship of senior attorneys.” The leaders of your firm are not going to know what you want unless you tell them.
And if you do get invited to play a role on a particular case, don’t hesitate to conduct some of your own independent research. You might discover something that has evaded the others on the team. Show initiative. Try to contribute something of real value. You will be remembered for it.
Experts in this field tell me that one of the things young women attorneys need to do more is to promote themselves. Many women apparently believe that if they do good work, that will be sufficient, and they will get all the corresponding rewards. Perhaps in some professions that is true. In law firms, however, you need to be your own marketing department.
If your firm has year-end self-assessments, don’t be taken by surprise; keep records of your accomplishments throughout the year. These reviews help determine promotions and bonuses, so take them seriously and don’t leave anything out.
“It is extremely important to show the people you work for how great you are,” notes Feeley.
At Feely's firm, the monthly practice group meetings provide the perfect opportunity for young women associates to toot their own horns.
“There is time set aside at these meetings for people to talk about what they have accomplished during the previous month,” explains Feeley. “Younger women associates might feel uncomfortable speaking up. But you’ve got to do it. Even if it seems like something small, like a motion victory. Go ahead. Tell people about it.”
She recommends that you practice your presentation in private before making it to the group, at least until you get the hang of it. “If you don’t sound confident, people will doubt what you’re saying. Almost everything in law requires competence…and confidence. You need to practice how you say things,” Feely says.
If you’re not sure about the kinds of things you should be claiming as accomplishments, listen to what the others are bragging about, and take your cues from them. Or ask your mentor. “It is critical that women take credit where credit is due and self-promote for their contributions,” confirms Deborah Epstein Henry, Founder & President, Flex-Time Lawyers.
Many firms have formal mentorship programs. However, sometimes these forced assignments don’t work out. Some say mentorships only work if you have something in common with your mentor. Since there are fewer women in firm leadership positions, this can boil down to a numbers game. But don’t let the lack of women stop you. There are other things you might have in common (e.g., hometown, ethnic background, hobbies, pro bono activities, law school, etc.)
“All of my mentors have been men,” laughs Feeley, “so it definitely can work.”
There are many things a mentor can help you with, so be direct. Let him or her know what you want. Ask him or her to clarify the following for you: What are the unwritten rules for success at your firm? Which are the most important committees, and what do you need to do to get on them? How do you get credit for business you bring in? Can you accompany your mentor (or other partners) on pitches and/or to client meetings? You should always be looking for opportunities to learn from the leaders of the firm and to gain business development skills.
But don’t limit yourself to mentors inside your firm. Look outside, too. There are bound to be lawyers in other firms, judges, or business professionals who can offer you guidance at various stages of your career.
“Sometimes it is essential to have someone outside your firm to talk to. You can never have too many mentors,” adds Feeley.
You can’t have too many friends in the firm, either. So start practicing your networking skills. Get to know people; ask them about their hobbies; invite them to lunch. This will help you form connections with people and ensure that they remember you if they move to another firm. It will ensure that you and your work become known, give you access to career-enhancing opportunities and, eventually, get you business.
As Cynthia Calvert, co-director of the Project for Attorney Retention, puts it, “Keep your eyes open for the partners who handle the type of work you want to do, the senior associates who can tell you the inside scoop about the firm, your colleagues who appear to be go-getters, the librarian who always turns up exactly what you’re looking for, then go make friends!”
Remember that as a young associate, you are the low man/woman on the totem pole. It is like high school all over again – where the seniors get to pick on the freshmen. It’s tradition. Don’t look upon gopher-tasks or errands as belittling; see them as opportunities to prove that you know how to suck it up, that you are willing to do whatever is needed to help your firm be successful, and that you deliver excellent results no matter what the work entails. Attitude and quality of work are both paramount. You are always being judged, so don’t let your exasperation with the apparent pettiness of a task distract you from doing it well.
Another thing you need to learn to live with is your firm’s dress code. Though some firms have adopted casual wear, others require a more professional wardrobe. As evidence, check out these recent articles: “Bare-Legged Ladies: Hosiery Reveals Office Divide” (The Wall Street Journal, June 5, 2008) and “Toe Cleavage: Offensive to the Legal Profession?” (New York Law blog, June 8, 2008).
Who cares if you can’t wear your new Jimmy Choo or Manolo Blahnik stilettos to the office, or if you have to wear conservative suits and pantyhose? You should’ve learned your law firm’s rules when you were summering. So don’t act surprised and offended now. You will be perceived as a petty whiner. It is your firm’s prerogative to request a certain style of dress in an attempt to please clients and maintain its professional image. You aren’t there to be a fashion plate. You should focus on more important issues
As mentioned above, committees can be extremely important in law firms. They give you access to the firm’s leaders and practice group managers, so get involved. You’ll not only get credit for your participation, you’ll get noticed for your contributions, and you’ll get to know people outside your practice group.
If your firm sponsors social or community events, go to them. Don’t be a perennial no show. These events may be the only chance you have to mingle with your colleagues away from the office, to see what they’re like in down time, and vice versa, and to establish relationships beyond the professional ones, especially if you don’t like going to bars and you don’t play golf. (One woman attorney learned to drive a golf cart so she could hang with the guys.)
There is a lot more to advancing in this profession than just going into the office and billing your hours. You need to get involved in the workings of your law firm, be active in your community, work well with people (colleagues, supervisors and support staff), and demonstrate high degrees of competence and confidence. You’ve worked hard to get where you are, so enjoy it — and good luck.
Reprinted with permission of The Legal Intelligencer.