Women Lawyers Must ‘Lean In’ to Realize Their Career Dreams

Lean In
Athletes in Law Special Issue

After spending nearly two decades working in law firms, I have witnessed and experienced enough discrimination and recrimination to know from the front row the many challenges women lawyers face in law firms today. In order to achieve career success, today’s women lawyers must lean in.


According to a 2012 National Association for Law Placement (NALP) survey on the demographics of equity, we should not be surprised to learn that 64 percent of male partners are equity partners while 47 percent of both women and minority partners were equity partners, a differential of 17 to18 percentage points. More dramatically perhaps, among equity partners, about 85 percent are men, 15 percent are women, and fewer than 5 percent are racial/ethnic minorities. (The minority figures include both men and women, so the three figures add to more than 100 percent.)



Among non-equity partners, the respective figures are 73 percent men, 27 percent women, and 8 percent racial/ethnic minorities. Finally, among all partners, the equity/non-equity split is about 61 percent/39 percent. Just over half of partners are male equity partners; just over 9 percent were women equity partners; and almost 3 percent are minority equity partners.

What these stats may convey to us is: 1) Caucasian males remain in the power seats; 2) women lawyers must step it up if we are committed to making a measurable advancement in their careers and quality of work environments.

Despite these figures, the ranks of women lawyers also must claim their role as well with not “leaning in” (Sheryl Sandberg reference intended) to clear the path for power and advancement in their legal careers.

In Sheryl’s book, “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead,” she says that we women are hindered by barriers erected by ourselves, as well as society (read law firms). “We hold ourselves back in ways big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in,” she says, pointing out that women tend to internalize lifelong negative messages that say it is wrong to be outspoken, aggressive, more powerful than men. “We lower our expectations of what we can achieve,” she says. “We compromise our career goals … Compared to our male colleagues, fewer of us aspire to senior positions.”

Compound these troubling realities with the well-known fact that law school curriculum does not appropriately prepare law students in the business of law or how to build and grow a client base, and women lawyers have their work cut out for them, as we sometimes say.

Difficult, no doubt, but possible nonetheless.


Recognizing that women must prove themselves to a far greater extent than men do (2011 Kinsey Report noted that men are promoted on potential while women are promoted based upon past accomplishments), I suggest women learn from this and advance in spite of it.


Computer Forensics

Striving to be a “glass-half-full” individual, I know for sure that attitude is everything.

Assess your mindset toward building a prosperous practice to check your “attytude” before taking the first action.

Do you believe in what you are doing? Are you resentful that you are placed in “selling situations”? Do you begrudgingly attend networking events? And, when there, do you not use the time productively? You are not alone. What we see very often is that women lawyers frequently behave from a position of fear, not confidence. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard, “I’m not good at xxxx,” I could buy an island in the Pacific somewhere. The question is not whether you are “good” or “bad” at any particular behavior or action, but rather whether you are willing to work at it.

This reminds me of a great quote by Henry Ford: “If you think you can do a thing or think you can’t do a thing, you’re right.” It’s all in the attitude.


As a gender, women are hardwired to cultivate and nurture relationships. We are born for relationships. Leverage this strength to turn everyday contacts into powerful business and client connections.

In our everyday lives, we constantly encounter people who may be in a position or have a connection to help us. The only way we will know is to engage…ask open ended questions, offer to help, to connect, to listen. It’s really that simple. This is what we do each and every day for our partners, for our children, for our parents, and now is not too soon to take a hold of this natural ability of connecting to propel your legal career.

From a traditional business development perspective, consider the state of your network – how and how often do you get and stay in touch. Is our contact database organized, categorized and current? Do you have systems to implement and support our continual connecting efforts? Anything short of an “absolutely” and we suggest seeking out resources to check this off the “must-do” list of critical business development initiatives.

In contrast to the old cliché that lawyers must “eat what they kill,” I challenge you to adapt a “give to get” mentality. As you attack the crucial elements of building a prosperous practice with fervor, do so by discovering an attitude of abundance by sharing your skills and expertise. Be willing to “lift as you climb,” to reference a favorite phrase. Women so often regard each other as rivals instead of colleagues on similar journeys. Those women lawyers who take the time to help out a junior associate as she is finding her sea legs will find much more pleasure in a sometimes otherwise mundane workday or contract review or deposition preparation.


As much as you cannot develop a prosperous practice without cultivating solid relationships, it is imperative that you define your network and craft an actionable plan to:

  1. Get and stay connected with former classmates; co-workers (past and present); non-client referral sources; clients (past and present); qualified prospects; professional contacts, etc.
  2. Attend with the intention of joining and becoming involved in targeted networking opportunities. Dependent upon your area of practice and the profile of your “perfect client,” you want to get and stay in front of those individuals who are in a position to retain you. To truly gain a firm understanding of who these folks are may require some research and professional guidance (another topic for another day).
  3. Raise your visibility and profile in front of the aforementioned “qualified target prospects.”


Productive systems can be a savior to building a healthy practice wherein to organize and track your connections. They result from targeted networking and the ongoing steps one must take to consistently stay in front of your targeted audience.

The “new rule” of building a healthy practice is to accept that networking is not an event but a lifestyle. Clients may be right in front of you but if you are not looking (and more importantly, paying attention) for them, a successful practice may become elusive.

As my clients will attest, I continuously teach the imperative of developing a “marketing mindset” — to pay attention to your environment, to others around you (even at your daughter’s ballet class or son’s Little League practice) and to always have your radar on high alert for prospective opportunities. Not just client inquiry or retention opportunities but strategic alliance and partnership opportunities. We do this by actively listening for business and legal problems in every day conversations of ours and those around us. This is a skill which requires discipline to develop and perfect. Believe me when I say, opportunities abound if we are actively looking for them.


While women lawyers must work a bit smarter and harder than their male counterparts, the basics of business development apply to all. If you fail to plan, you are, in effect, planning to fail.

Craft your business development blueprint, a map, if you will, by capturing your specific action steps in a written plan. There is no magic to this document or even what it actually looks like, but make no mistake, you will see a measurable difference in developing a strong practice by creating and effectively implementing a written business development plan.

As you correctly guessed, this exercise requires some thoughtful consideration and gaining clarity of your career dreams and goals. There are a number of ways to accomplish this, but the quickest path would be to:

  1. Define your target audience (outline a visual picture of whom you want to attract)
  2. Find out where these targets go during and aft er work hours
  3. Outline steps to get on these targets’ radar and to achieve “top-of-mind” awareness

For the sake of the length of this article, I have skipped many of the details but the points above can be considered a part of your broad business development plan.

Clarity is key. To reference the late Steve Jobs, “The world is very noisy so we must be very clear about what we want people to know about us.”

One defining element that separates a business development plan that “works” from one that does not is this — your commitment to turning interactions into transactions by:

  • Having a written plan.
  • Accessing your resources (all and oft en).
  • Concisely communicating your needs. Do not be reticent in voicing what you need professionally.
  • Executing your devised plan to help accomplish your career dreams and goals.
  • Follow up, follow up, follow up with every person you encounter who may have a business need that you or someone in your network can help fulfill.

Too many times in my legal marketing career have I heard lawyers complain, “I tried public speaking and it really does not ‘work’ for me”; “Networking is not my cup of tea. I have better things to do than to attend an event at which I know so few people.”

My reaction is usually the same: Building a prosperous practice is not a “one-hit wonder,” meaning that no one action will win the day. In addition to being clear of what you are endeavoring to achieve, you also must you be committed to the process.

Anatomy of a Successful Business Development Plan

Essentially, there are two parallel tracks to a successful business development plan and attracting quality clients: through relationship and reputation-enhancing marketing tactics. These tactics may include public speaking and targeted networking, but also will involve:

  • Building a robust online presence (aka website, social media development).
  • Devising an aggressive public relations effort to raise your profile and visibility.
  • Getting involved in a professional/community/ government association, among others.

Once you have taken the requisite steps to:1) Clarify your career dreams and goals; 2) Address your limiting internal barriers; 3) Define your network; 4) Develop a written business development plan; 5) Embrace and leverage your natural relationship builder, it is time to become the conductor of your business-development orchestra, (journey). Actively allow others to help you, to connect you with others who may be useful in achieving your professional goals. Relax and enjoy the actual process of getting and staying connected, of learning more about your clients’ industries, of being of service to others.

Relish in your unique ability to connect with others and your hard-earned legal skills to be the rocket boosters to your fulfilling and rewarding legal career. There is but one secret sauce to business development success and realizing your career dreams:

Consistent, persistent massive amounts of action over a prolonged period of time.

That’s it, in a nutshell.


As women, we’ve always had to fight harder, be more resilient, and press more than some of our counterparts. While the professional landscape is creeping forward slowly, let us forge on to meet our professional goals. Kimberly Rice

Kimberly Rice

Kimberly Rice is President and Chief Strategist of award-winning KLA Marketing Associates (www.klamarketing.com), a business development advisory firm focusing on legal services. As a legal marketing expert, Kimberly and her team help law firms and lawyers develop practical business development and marketing strategies which lead directly to new clients and increased revenues. She may be reached at 609.458.0415 or at [email protected].

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Posts