Five W’s: Strategies For Women To Break Barriers And Bridge The Gap

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Every day there are headlines about women making headway  to break barriers and battle for professional equality. Progressive companies like SalesForce lead by example by focusing efforts on equal advancement and equal pay. Parallel to this, every day, there are headlines about how women are still many, significant steps behind men. In the legal industry surveys highlight how wide the cracks really are — in leadership roles, equity partnerships and pay, data shows women at 19 percent equity partnership (NAWL), 25 percent management roles (NAWL) and a 27 percent pay gap for top rainmakers (Acritas).

So what can be done to bridge the gap even if we do not yet have the imposing title or the management role? In March, the Women Leaders Forum, a leadership development program for female Local Legal Authorities, convened in Denver for a 360-degree look at the industry and its mission to support the advancement of women leaders in law. Over two days, we dove into the soft and hard skills of leaders. We discussed perspectives and outlined strategies and tactics that participants could take back into their firms and their daily practice to be better leaders, to break barriers and to bridge the gaps of disparities.


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Here are the five W strategies we focused on at the Women Leaders Forum:


Your degree(s), resume, wins and years of experience may have gotten you this far, but your human assets are critical in breaking barriers. Identify your assets and use the goals or challenges of those assets to innovate and achieve. If they haven’t already helped cultivate your success, maybe they can. If they have already proven value, keep them close and be an asset for them. So who are they and how can your shared challenges and successes help you?

1) Clients — Clients are one of your best assets. The very nature of your relationship is based on navigating their challenges toward a desired goal. Ask your client what they want, what they need and what they value. When you consistently seek feedback and ways to resolve their challenges, you become their business partner. Add innovation and creativity to align your actions with their strategies and you set yourself and your company apart, creating that competitive edge and new opportunities.


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2) Colleagues — Your colleagues, the talent with whom you work, are critical resources. These are individuals essential in supporting the work you do and in making your clients feel secure and valued. Similar to your clients, understand what your colleagues and employees want, relate to their challenges, and offer support to resolve their issues. This will cultivate collaboration, innovation and most importantly, trust. Lead by example, provide feedback, support their efforts and bring them to the table as they are a key to the foundation.

3) Network — Your referral sources, allies and friends are essential in the asset category. Who supports you? Who has your back and will refer business? Who has the capability to be a reference? These are relationships to continue to nurture and the people whose needs you must anticipate and support.


The best way to inspire and build loyalty is to do a favor. In business, one of the best favors to give is to make a connection between assets that means something. Connecting people based on needs and objectives can achieve multiple goals. It builds a loyal and appreciative network. It generates an active pipeline of business and supports a book of business. It shows your value. It inspires others to connect their assets with one another. The list is endless, and it is all positive. Inquire with your assets about their needs and challenges, look for ways to connect the dots and make connections that serve those needs and solve problems. These favors are deposits in the bank, and in return, your assets will be there to support your goals and advancement.


I often hear women leaders stress the importance of stepping out of your industry bubble and into the business world at large. The Women Leaders Forum keynote, Hilarie Bass, Co-President of Greenberg Traurig and President of American Bar Association, explained how she jumped out of the legal zone into non-profit leadership at the United Way, and how it gave her the credibility she needed to dissolve the barriers that were preventing her from leadership in the firm. Becoming a leader outside her firm gave her credibility and allowed people to see the potential of what she could do inside the firm.


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In a recent Women Local Legal Authorities podcast interview with Jennifer Scalzi, CEO of Calibrate Legal, Jennifer discussed how moving outside of the legal industry provided a boost in her career. She put energy into a non-profit, Dress for Success, where she met other business professionals in technology, financial services, insurance, retail, media, etc., all of whom supported one another, while making connections and driving the advancement of the non-profit’s mission. Ripple effects like this can be astounding. You can find new assets and drive relationship reciprocation outside of your industry.


There is no time like the present to voice what you want. Have the courage to dream out loud for the position or role you want. Tell people what you are looking for professionally, seek for advice on how to get there, show your value along the way and then ask for opportunities to lead. This proactive practice will accelerate the process for promotions or leadership and management roles. Be brave and be your own ambassador. Women are consistently less likely to be chosen to serve as lead counsel on matters, passed over on promotions and paid less than male counterparts. Speak up and deliver value, particularly now in a time when more people are listening. A leader is intentional, has an independent voice and is clear in communications, so take stock in that fact and let people know and help you achieve what you want.


Studies consistently show the link between the presence of women in leadership positions and positive firm performance. Changing the status of equality is not an easy hurdle and not one that will happen overnight. But, with purpose comes progress and hopefully soon the gaps in equality will be the headlines of the past, and the dynamic of people and businesses able to reach their full potential will be our norm. Kim Stuart

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