According to the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession, in 2006, women comprised approximately 30 percent of the profession.1 In private practice, women accounted for approximately 47 percent of summer associates, 44 percent of associates, and only 17 percent of partners. Numbers in the corporate and business world are similar to that for female partners, and are only slightly less abysmal among academic professionals and the judiciary. While we must be encouraged by the near-equalization in recent years of men and women in law school, maintaining successful and rewarding legal careers appears to be the most significant challenge currently facing women attorneys.
Firms are starting to recognize the special challenges of improving retention of women associates and partners, and are beginning to provide support for the development of all of the skills necessary to be successful. Most significantly, firms recognize that flexibility is key. “The successful firm will work with women to provide opportunities to remain connected with the firm, stay engaged in the law and manage other demands on their lives,” according to Theresa Cropper, National Director of Diversity for DLA Piper US LLP. “If the firm can be flexible with the ebbs and flows of work-life balance, the net yield should be the successful retention of women who can stay connected and/or reconnect and transition back into a successful career track at the law firm.”
In addition to developing an arsenal of legal skills and abilities, establishing and protecting a good reputation, and being “good at what you do,” there are other skills important for a young attorney to cultivate, and there are steps that we can each take individually that can help our own careers to thrive and can also encourage the continued success of other women attorneys.
Many law schools are beginning to recognize the advantages of teaching students not only the basic legal skills necessary to become practicing attorneys, but also the intangible skills necessary to become successful attorneys. Networking skills must be practiced, which make relationships between law schools and legal associations an important resource for both students and practicing attorneys. Law firms and the corporate world are also beginning to recognize that women may utilize and practice these networking skills differently from men, and are beginning to tailor networking events towards women, focusing on bonding over events other than golf or other sports.
Practical Tips: Networking successfully, particularly for those of us who are not naturally gifted in that arena, requires careful thought and planning. If possible, try to understand as much as you can about the people you will be talking with in advance. If you have something in common, find a way to bring that up. Be an active listener, maintain good eye contact, and pay attention to the person with whom you are talking at any given time. If you are particularly shy or nervous in networking settings, develop a few topics of discussion that can be used to break the ice or fill awkward silences. Stay knowledgeable regarding current events and noteworthy news items.
We have all heard about the importance of mentoring, which has significant benefits for both mentors and those who learn from them. Mentoring is particularly important for women attorneys, who often are not automatically welcomed into the informal “system” along with their male counterparts. As one young female associate I spoke with noted, “At first, I was frustrated because what is just handed to or assumed for a male associate—credibility, intelligence, talent, trustworthiness, work ethic—I had to work for every step of the way. In the end, I will be a better attorney and a better person, because I earned everything I have.” Establishing mentoring relationships can be a valuable resource to help you in that process.
Practical tips: Seek out mentors, both male and female, at different stages of their careers and who can contribute varying perspectives on the challenges that you will face. Take the first step and recognize that mentors are (most likely) busy people with busy lives of their own. Respect their time, and make sure you express your appreciation. It is important to understand each other’s expectations. Communication is key.
3. Group Associations
Involvement in a national, state or local bar association can provide significant benefits, not only related to your particular area of practice, but also related to (surprise!) networking and mentoring opportunities. The ISBA offers a vast array of opportunities to get involved, depending on your interest and time commitment. Join an ISBA Committee or Section, run for an elected leadership position or just attend sponsored events. The ISBA MentorCenter is a great way to get involved in a mentoring relationship, and also has additional information on how to build a successful relationship with a mentor. Information on all of these opportunities can be found on the ISBA Web site, <www.isba.org>.
Defining and finding success is a challenge each of us must face individually, but learning from others can help make that task less daunting—whether that is learning which strategies will work for you, or recognizing which strategies will not. We must each take ownership for our careers, and learn to build a successful practice in a way that is rewarding, in our own way.