Women Lawyers: Take Control of Your Career by Using Your Voice

Minnesota Women Lawyers
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To take control of your legal career, you must become the CEO of your own one-(wo)man firm.

Extraordinary Times We Are Living.

While this may be the year of women, given the #MeToo movement, law firms are still struggling mightily with a culture of harassment. In my tenure of in-house law firm positions for nearly 20 years, I saw it and experienced it, in profound ways.

In a recent ALA survey taking the pulse of the prevalence of law firm workplace harassment, 75% of respondents reported they had experienced some type of harassment in their careers while 67% reported it had occurred more than once. Those are breathtaking statistics and disturbing, at the same time.

One of the most daunting of circumstances is when the perpetrators are among the most powerful in the firm, usually in the top rank of rainmakers. So egregious is the scenario, I recount that one practice group leader considered suits filed (for which the firm picked up the tab) against him as “just those silly girls” making a mountain out of a molehill. Really?

Nevertheless, these white men are powerful and can wield a mighty sword. The picture I’m painting is that in light of the flat, horizontal government structure and typically rotating leadership in a law firm environment, there is little continuity and, quite frankly, even less political will to make many wide-sweeping changes.

Disparate Power Structures.

When I was a law firm CMO, the inequality was palatable. The powerful white men knew they were untouchable, given their impressive and profitable “originations”. It is still the white men whom primarily control the purse strings, make the attorney compensation decisions and can dismiss others whom may prove not to be to their liking, for whatever reason.

So, what does this scenario have to do with private practicing women lawyers taking control of their careers? Everything.

Taking the Reins.

First, given the out-of-whack power structure of mostly-male governed law firms (the majority), women lawyers have their work cut out for them in connection with creating the career of their dreams, given the limited autonomy and opportunity they may have. Women lawyers can sometimes pursue and exercise more control over their career in larger firms wherein they can fade more easily into the masses. In the smaller firms, not as much.

Despite the precarious scenario, however, women lawyers should commit to positioning themselves on the right side of progress to make the private practice of law different, better, more fulfilling for them and their fellow women lawyer colleagues.

Zerega Consulting

Sure, the life of a female lawyer is nothing if not an exercise in multi-tasking, constant balancing of multiple priorities, and going the extra mile to be acknowledged and rewarded, compared to their male counterparts, but the well-informed lawyer understands that her legal career is only as satisfying as she molds it to be. Sometimes to move “up”, one must move “out”. Do not become too comfortable and complacent as your career transcends your current position, every day of the week.

Even as law firms are still struggling to morph into a prosperous business model that may mirror some of their client companies, there has never been a more pressing time for women lawyers to take control of their careers and build solid books of business for themselves.

With the workplace discrimination, unconscious bias and gender-wage studies reflecting dismal progress and the disparate number of women law firm leaders, it is no wonder that female lawyers decide to throw in the towel and leave the profession altogether, at alarming rates.

To those who choose to stay and fight the good fight, I say, “Understand, deeply, that whether you are a solo practitioner or a member of an AmLaw 100 law firm, if you are in private practice, you are a business owner whether or not you actually have any business of your own.” Make that your focus.

You Have a Voice, Use It.

Summon the confidence to speak up and be heard. As women, we are socially conditioned to “over prepare” for most everything Use that to your advantage by “out preparing” your male colleagues with superior work product, with sophisticated executive communication skills and by leveraging your inherent relationship-building skills to grow a solid network of referral sources and contacts whom want to help you succeed.

Document and publicize your accomplishments such as case wins and settlements. When you achieve a leadership role in relevant outside organizations, add it to your LinkedIn and website profiles, request it be pushed out via the firm’s social media channels. If women lawyers are to develop the coveted “top-of-mind” awareness status, they must remain confident in their self-worth and be comfortable with the “promotional” aspect of growing their brand.

The CEO of You.

To grow your legal business, you must put on the CEO hat, develop a strategic marketing plan, leverage the firm’s resources on behalf of your growing business and set about building your own business. Invite women lawyer sponsors to join you in the quest; organize and facilitate mentoring and mastermind groups within the law firm to support one another and amass resources for cross-selling purposes. In effect, form a mini-firm within the firm that is designed by and for women business growth.

I am often troubled to see too many private practicing women attorneys either proactively decide (professional suicide) or decide by default (no action taken) that, as long as firm partners are feeding them work, they’re good. These intelligent women (and men as well) are fed the “don’t worry about bringing in new files” line by firm partners, or they are lulled into complacency as a result of the constant feeding at the trough of the few firm rainmakers. Either way, the long-term career prospects are dim unless these lawyers experience some jarring reality check and realize that increased earning potential and long-term job security is directly aligned with building and growing a healthy book of business.

Unless you have been living under a rock since the Great Recession, you have witnessed law firms implode, buckets of attorneys laid off, and folded into other, more healthy firms. Interestingly, in the last few years, I have witnessed unprecedented law firm spinoffs with the most popular being BigLaw lawyers forming their own firms. Firms are still shedding attorney positions though the rainmakers (those who have their own books of business) and “rising stars” remain secure, for now. No law firm is exempt … not one.

It is essential to understand that, as a result of the legal services paradigm shift, there more infrequently exists the age-old lockstep tradition of moving from associate to partner in a pre-determined number of years. There is no guarantee that you will remain with the same firm without experiencing a layoff at least once. Unfortunately, it is not a given that you will even secure a legal job when you graduate from law school.

The only way to secure your career and your future with a higher degree of certainty is to move from the “employee” mindset to that of the “CEO of Me” mindset, and take definitive, strategic steps to build a book.

Sadly, here’s the dirty little secret that is often hidden: Law schools and, so frequently, law firms do not teach or prepare you to make that happen. Sure, firms may say they have healthy mentoring programs and/or training programming. However, as a practical matter, the intentions may be honorable, but the follow-through is often very disappointing.

If it’s going to happen, you must be the captain of your own ship and make it happen. There are many rainmaking books, CLEs and professional trainers/coaches you can look to for support and further enlightenment. Becoming a rainmaker is the only way to have job security – in a law firm or on your own.

Remember, rainmakers are not born – they are taught, and you can learn the skills necessary to be successful in your own right. Kimberly Rice

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