There’s a dearth of women in leadership in the legal industry. This holds true across all parts of the industry: law firms, in-house, academia, agencies, and legal technology companies. Even with more women entering law school than men and graduating at record numbers, the statistics on women breaking into leadership change at a glacially slow pace. This is the case even though many articles and studies have shown the benefits to businesses of diverse teams and the public, boards of directors, in-house counsel and more advocate for more women in leadership. This is not news to anyone, nor is it a new phenomenon.
Many articles talk about the things female lawyers can and should do to propel themselves into leadership. As a lead US Lawbreaker for She Breaks the Law, I moderate monthly discussions of women across the legal industry focused on sharing best practices, experience, and inspiration on dealing with issues we all face in our professional and personal lives. Last month we discussed the things women could do to try to set themselves up for leadership, but we also all agreed that leadership needs to take intentional steps to amplify and promote women.
Based on those conversations and my own experiences, here are 5 steps legal leaders can start putting in place to improve the upward mobility of women and other underrepresented groups.
1. Provide frequent and honest feedback, especially on women’s strengths and weaknesses
An easy yet dismissed step leaders in the legal industry can take to help female lawyers progress in their career is simply to provide frequent, honest feedback. Too often, young attorneys do not know what their strengths and weaknesses are. SurePoint CMO Lydia Flocchini initially did not view her ability to effectively lead teams through last-minute product launch changes, acquisitions, and more, as being either unusual or as a strength.
“Colleagues consistently commented on how resilient I was. Over and over. After a while, I realized that was a strength I had that doesn’t come as naturally to others.”–Lydia Flocchini, SurePoint CMO.
Flocchini capitalized on her resilience as a differentiator and started including that when describing the skills and qualities she brought to the table.
Similarly, it took me a few years to realize that my propensity for sharing on social media very authentically was a skill few lawyers have and which hinders them when building their personal brands and seeking promotions. Knowing what sets you apart and where your strengths are is critical.
It is just as important to be open to improving areas outside your strong suit, and for supervisors to find healthy ways to communicate how female lawyers can improve.
Partners and senior lawyers are not taught management skills in law school, and if firms are providing people management or coaching training, it’s not being publicized. There are too many 8th and 9th year associates who–after years of receiving “fine” performance reviews–suddenly learn they’re not on the partnership track. Leaders in legal organizations should be working with people managers to ensure they understand how to deliver and communicate performance feedback and coach lawyers on ways to improve that. Leaders in legal organizations should be working with people managers to ensure they understand how to deliver and communicate performance feedback and coach lawyers on ways to improve that.
What also makes this hard is young lawyers often do not know what skills or strengths are prized in leaders. Too many young attorneys think if they put their head down and grind out work, they’ll be noticed and get promoted. But in the past few years, the model for today’s leaders is very different.
Companies and law firms aren’t just looking for the attorney with the biggest client, most power, biggest rainmaker, but also now are often looking for leaders with characteristics like agility, efficiency, empathy, self-reflection, emotional intelligence, humility, inclusion, and innovative approaches.
Unfortunately, as mentioned above, law schools aren’t known for teaching future attorneys how to build or cultivate leadership skills. Nor do law firms or law departments typically measure those qualities in performance reviews. But many young lawyers possess these characteristics–especially women and moms. In fact, lawyer moms are often viewed as multitaskers who effectively and efficiently juggle several tasks at one time and employ resourceful thinking to get a child to eat a meal, go to sleep, or try something new. Increasingly, employees and customers want to see vulnerability and authenticity in leaders, but these are not traits taught or encouraged in any law school course. Is there a perfect overlap here between female lawyers and desired skills for legal leadership? I think so.
As leaders, ensure that your lawyers know what qualities and characteristics are considered for promotions–and tell them honestly if they’re on track:
“Waiting until the annual performance review to give feedback is too late. A decision about attorneys’ promotion will already have been made by then and they’ll have to wait another year,” said Priya Lele, Legal Operations Lead at Herbert Smith Freehills and cofounder of She Breaks the Law.
Leaders need to engage in regular check-ins to ensure attorneys know how their strengths and weaknesses track against those required for promotion.
2. Encourage and help women build a personal board of directors
A personal “board of directors”–a small group of trusted friends and advisors who women can turn to for career advice and perspective–can be an incredibly helpful leadership tool for women. This group will be a supportive and warm space for women–but made up of people not afraid to share their true opinions, even when they differ. Sometimes it will be made up of former colleagues, fellow law school alumni, and friends.
As leaders, encourage women to find people outside of their team, practice group, and even your organization who can provide a clear perspective and see things that you might not see because you’re too close to them.
“Use your personal board of directors as a sounding board–you can even rehearse with them career conversations you’re nervous about.”–Priya Lele
While a personal board of directors is not something you can form and hand over to an attorney, you can encourage them to create one, urge them to think about who has been helpful for career advice or support in the past, and check in on their progress. Too many attorneys want to devote time to invest in their own career development but set it aside because of their heavy workload or just their general burnout.
Change the culture by urging attorneys to invest time in furthering their personal career goals. For instance, normalize and encourage setting work aside to focus on networking with others to invest in their own career development. Enlist human resources’ help in regularly checking in with women on their support network outside of the office. Encouraging women to get to know attorneys in other office locations and practice groups can be useful as well to expand their networks and naturally connect with others.
Beyond just having this informal group of people for support and feedback, more involved individuals like sponsors and coaches can be the key to women becoming leaders in their organizations. Studies have shown sponsors make a much bigger impact on someone’s leadership path than mentors, since sponsors are in a senior level position and have the opportunity to vouch for someone’s skills and pull them up to another level in their career.
“Men have naturally been sponsors to other men in their careers, assisting them in identifying promotion opportunities and making critical connections. In large law firms, men often hand big books of business to their hand-picked successor or give senior corporate counsel great opportunities to gain visibility with the C-suite.”–GGorvett Consulting CEO Gayle Gorvett.
Sponsors are immensely helpful when it comes time for promotion, in vouching for one attorney and advocating for them as one of the top candidates considered. A coach can be crucial for women too, in helping them recognize and play to their strengths, in helping them hone their communication, or just in cultivating a growth mindset.
3. Set women up for success with opportunities to stretch & gain visibility
One important thing leaders can do for female attorneys is to provide them opportunities to gain skills and visibility at your organization.
Flocchini said, “Honestly I would not be where I am today but for some of the men in my life who gave me opportunities I wasn’t getting otherwise.”
When Casey Hall was director of corporate communications at Thomson Reuters, he realized several conference panels on which he had been invited to speak featured white male panelists only. After initially suggesting the conference organizers add women or people of color speakers to the panel and they were non-responsive, he declined the offer and suggested specific people (including me) who could serve in his stead to prevent another “manel” or “wanel” that wouldn’t reflect the audience listening.
Giving women a chance to fill public speaking roles or attend client meetings is something clients who are worried about succession planning might appreciate too.
“I don’t want to only work with the relationship partner. I want to meet his or her rising stars and have them meet mine too. I’d like each of our rising stars getting to know each other as well, for both team communications and building their networks.” — Ama Romaine, general counsel and chief compliance officer of G6 Hospitality and cofounder of The Initiative: Advancing the Blue & Black Partnership.
It may simply be a lack of intentionality–leaders and conference organizers sometimes tend to tap the people they have turned to before to fill roles. Perhaps they’re comfortable with them, knowing their work ethic and performance from past experiences or relying on their reputations. But not only does that overlook other attorneys with unknown talents, but additionally it can burden those tapped so often from having the bandwidth to focus on achieving their own career goals.
As leaders, give the women on your team stretch opportunities that provide visibility and allow them to build and demonstrate leadership skills. Career long in-house counsel and director of legal operations at Freeman Company Sharon Donnigan is grateful to general counsels early in her legal career who gave her opportunities to evaluate, purchase and implement contract automation technology tools, all responsibilities that helped her develop leadership skills.
“The opportunity to participate in technology implementation projects that required me to gain the consensus, and buy-in, from multiple business functions with differing and even conflicting needs helped me develop what I consider the three most valuable leadership skills today: self-awareness, active listening, and empathy.” — Sharon Donnigan, in-house counsel and legalops expert
Donigan said these experiences helped her learn skills not traditionally associated with an in-house legal role , including how to make a business case, persuade senior leaders change management to sponsor change, solicit buy-in from other business units, gain consensus on priorities and solutions, and customize solutions.
4. Use data to show the value of women to the organization
In today’s world of key performance indicators and metrics, data detailing an attorney’s value to your organization can be key to telling the story of their impact on the company’s success.
Data-driven decision making has risen in importance throughout the legal industry the past few years. In years past, the legal industry focused on revenue rather than profitability, measuring associates on their billable hours and matters brought into the firm. Of course we want to ensure attorneys are productive and can generate business, but do we measure the proper skills for our future leaders in the legal industry? Do we value change management, adaptability, empathy, emotional intelligence, and adoption of innovative processes in our leaders? If not, leaders can encourage women to collect examples of these attributes in their performance.
“Data is your superpower. When I’m trying to promote people, I collect data on quantitative things like how many meetings they had or cross-department meetings but also what direct impact their actions had on the company’s revenue.” — Lydia Flocchini, SurePoint Technologies CMO
Attorneys often don’t know how to tell their value to the organization beyond being an excellent attorney who is hard-working. While women can say they are collaborative and innovative, using data can show real examples of that and how it contributed to the organization’s overall strategic goals.
Prior to my current role, I could always very clearly show my value and ROI to an organization as an account manager through my sales and revenue performance; now that my role sits on the Marketing side of the house, I need to ensure I regularly provide metrics showing LawGeex the impact on our goals from the content I create, my social media posts, and appearances.
Leaders can use data and figures to show how women attorneys’ value and ROI directly impacted the company’s overall success.
5. Establish a culture that encourages professional development and specifically building leadership skills
One of the key things you can do as a leader is to set the tone and culture you want to see. No, you may not be able to change the culture of the entire legal industry. You may not even be the top leader at your organization with the ability to issue a memo mandating behavior. But you can set the tone for your own team.
You can encourage women NOT to get back on email after leaving early for their kids’ school event. You can set a regular hour aside on people’s calendars each month or every two weeks devoted to their own career development, whether that’s to connect with their personal board of directors, update the metrics they keep on their performance, or think about other activities or opportunities they may want to pursue on their path to leadership. You can encourage regular networking and connecting across different practice groups or departments to ensure women are exposed to different stakeholders.
Beyond that, you can encourage everyone is working at the right level of work and utilizing all tools and resources they can to take on less important tasks so your attorneys are freed up to focus on more important things. Leverage technology whenever possible to ensure consistency and reduce time spent on routine or mundane tasks.
Empower your legal staff, business folks, and junior attorneys with technology to handle as many routine tasks as you can to free up your more senior attorneys to focus on more strategic and important tasks for the business–and for their own career development. Put in place processes to ensure escalations to your senior attorneys only happen for the most important issues. Then encourage your attorneys to delegate so they are freed up for any number of things.
If they are in-house, perhaps they will now have time to meet more regularly with key stakeholders or to take on a new certification so they can handle work you might have sent to outside counsel before. For lawyers in firms, perhaps they are freed up to conduct more client feedback sessions, engage in more business development, or take on a stretch project.
Leaders can and should serve as role models for the attorneys below them. Floor Blindenbach, founder of Organizing4Innovation and co-host of our monthly She Breaks the Law U.S. discussions, said that she has heard many female leaders lament that they see themselves as poor role models for younger female lawyers, especially if they’re working long hours.
“However, the question is whether the next generation of women need to make the same sacrifices as today’s women leaders in the legal industry. Nowadays, we can organize work better and be more tolerant of alternative schedules.” — Floor Blindenbach, Organizing4Innovation founder & She Breaks the Law US co-lead lawbreaker
As a leader, you may consider being open and vulnerable about the things you sacrificed and what you got in return for all that hard work. Show the advantages of being in a leadership position.
The fact women are lacking in leadership roles in the legal industry is not solely female lawyers’ problem to solve–it’s the industry’s problem. Leaders must take concrete steps to ensure they are amplifying the work of female lawyers on their teams and encouraging them to prioritize their own career paths.
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