Women Lawyers Lean In To Leadership

Women Lawyers LeadershipWe all know the numbers — women are graduating from law school in equal numbers to men, and even joining law firms in the same proportion, but women lawyers are not making it into key attorney leadership roles.

When Eugena Whitson-Owen took over as president of the Women’s Bar Association of Illinois last June, she made a commitment to learning as much as she could about what was keeping women lawyers from leadership roles. As the WBAI worked with and honored women lawyers in firm leadership roles throughout her year-long presidency, Whitson-Owen interviewed nearly all of them.

Every time she asked women managing partners about what had been the key to their success, and what had kept the majority of firm leadership men, they said the same thing — the key was having a book of business.

Good Lawyer Misconception

Many women seem to work under the misconception that being a good lawyer and doing good work are enough. Whitson-Owen emphasized that it is important to be a good lawyer, because that is the foundation of a professional reputation that gets you a seat at the table. It’s what you do with that seat that matters.

Women are often the smartest and the hardest working attorneys in any office, but they still don’t necessarily rise to the top, because those qualities alone are not enough. We have tried to encourage young lawyers to ask right from the start — where do I want to be in 10 years, and what do I need to do to get there?

If women lawyers are looking toward leadership roles, they will need to develop their own business. More firms are focused on this, but not many. Certainly, these skills are not generally taught in law school—to either women or men.

A recent program co-sponsored by the WBAI and the Chicago firm of Swanson, Martin & Bell was designed specifically to address this knowledge and skills gap. The program, entitled How to Get the Business: A Conversation with Givers and Getters, featured a group of givers, in-house counsel who routinely direct their organization’s business to outside counsel, and getters, firm lawyers who have been particularly successful at rainmaking.

The panelists were in general agreement that business development results in many cases from developing relationships, something that most women are quite skilled at. “Women tend to be natural relationship-builders in their personal lives. The trick is how to translate those relationships to business opportunities,” noted Whitson-Owen.

Operate With A Business Plan

It is important to realize that business development doesn’t just happen, it requires a business plan. The good news is that women tend to be good planners by nature. Most busy and organized women, in the work force or not, are operating with a plan.

Deborah Knupp, managing director of Akina, a national sales consulting firm for lawyers and other professionals, is also a believer in the value of planning. “Being prepared tells the other person that you respect her time by caring enough to have a game plan designed to get to a clear destination.”

Knupp shared that Akina has been working for several years on a program geared toward women lawyers, based in part on Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In concepts. Clients had both positive and negative reactions to Lean In, but Akina advocates for leaning in authentically.

Much has been written about a 2013 article in Psychology of Women Quarterly finding that women are less inclined to talk about their accomplishments because they experience backlash for violating cultural modesty norms. As an alternative approach, Akina coaches self-advocacy in the spirit of generosity and service, rather than self-interest. Knupp advocates research and preparation to demonstrate how your skills can serve the needs of your prospect.

Consistency and persistence count. There may be things women lawyers are already doing, but don’t always make a regular part of their day, Whitson-Owen noted. Knupp advocates setting a definitive next step after a good contact is made. Both women agree that the time to start a business development plan is now, and urges young lawyers to do so at the beginning of their career. Knupp confirmed the value of starting early.

We are seeing firms realize that business development is a life skill, and the earlier the training starts, the better. It helps to have young lawyers make these activities part of their daily work life.

There is clearly a great deal of interest in the topic, according to Whitson-Owen. WBAI’s Givers and Getters program was one of the best attended programs, and drew women lawyers of all ages.   “What seemed to be helpful to the younger lawyers was seeing the older getters talk about the fact that it isn’t easy—it takes practice, and confidence, and with practice, you develop the confidence.”

Katherine Erwin

Katherine Erwin

As the Commission's Special Projects Director, Katherine managed the statewide attorney mentoring program and other special projects. She practiced law in Chicago for 20 years. Then she founded the Chicago office of a legal placement agency, and placed highly credentialed attorneys in law firms, corporate legal departments and governmental agencies. Most recently, Kathy served in the Career Services Office of the University of Chicago Law School. A graduate of the University of Michigan Ross School of Business and the University of Michigan Law School, she lives in Lincoln Park with her husband and daughter.

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Katherine Erwin

Katherine Erwin

As the Commission's Special Projects Director, Katherine managed the statewide attorney mentoring program and other special projects. She practiced law in Chicago for 20 years. Then she founded the Chicago office of a legal placement agency, and placed highly credentialed attorneys in law firms, corporate legal departments and governmental agencies. Most recently, Kathy served in the Career Services Office of the University of Chicago Law School. A graduate of the University of Michigan Ross School of Business and the University of Michigan Law School, she lives in Lincoln Park with her husband and daughter.

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