March 2008Volume 13Number 3PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)

If you build your own corner office they will come!

This article is about a recent interview I conducted in my substitute Chair’s column, and is intended as a preview of a future roundtable discussion/exploration about women attorneys making the tough career choices—mostly to ‘go it on their own.’ Recently, over a lunch crammed into very tight schedules, I had the pleasure of engaging in dialogue with three very dynamic members of the W & L Committee about their career paths and choices made and not made along the way. I asked these particular women—Annemarie Kill, Sandra Crawford, and Stephanie Nathanson—to participate because each one founded and is presently managing her own firm, either as a solo practitioner or with partners, and each one has reached this point in time by means of a different journey. 

After a boisterous warm-up conversation, I scrapped my neatly ordered list of questions and dove into the subject with the following: How did you get to this very stage of your professional life? What follows are the funny, touching, and very individualized stories of two of these women and the insights and guidance from all three of them.

Stephanie, a 2002 law school graduate, was born into a family of lawyers, including her mother, who went to law school later in her educational career. She recalls attending her mom’s law school classes when a young child and pretending to take notes. As a young adult, Stephanie worked in her father’s law firm which concentrated in representing injured plaintiffs in medical malpractice claims. There she saw firsthand the stress of the business and how practicing in that specialized field was often like riding a financial roller coaster. Those experiences caused her to initially decide she’d never be a lawyer, but after unfulfilling forays down other career paths, Stephanie found herself taking the LSAT exam and enrolling in law school despite her mother’s efforts to persuade her otherwise.

Following law school graduation, Stephanie joined a med-mal law practice. What she encountered as a young adult in her family’s firm hadn’t changed by the time she herself was ready to advocate for injured plaintiffs: it is a field dominated by men except for mavericks like Lorna Propes. This preponderance of males creates a difficult environment for women, who more often than their male counterparts face challenges within the practice and are continually required to prove themselves to colleagues.

Despite her participation on numerous trial teams and her strong work ethic, Stephanie wasn’t treated like the male associates who earned higher salaries with more benefits because “they have families to support” while she was told that her lower salary was already “a lot of money for a single woman.” In addition, she wasn’t invited to sporting events to which the male attorneys, with or without clients, were invited. Also unlike the male associates, she was expected to do her own secretarial work.

In mid-2007, Stephanie found herself at a crossroads, in part due to the Tort Reform Act which, by capping monetary awards and thus the damages injured parties could claim, caused plaintiffs’ firms to scale back. This circumstance combined with her being undervalued at her firm inspired Stephanie to leave. Striking out on her own with a male attorney she had worked with was one of the best career decisions she has made. Though this path is fraught with substantial risk, it is her own and she is in charge of judging, utilizing, testing, and expanding her own talents and skills, and enjoying the results of her own successes, including how to reward herself.

Annemarie’s story is different. While working for a small firm, she was ‘plucked’ from her somewhat comfortable career by two women who wanted to establish a family law practice and sought her as their third partner. At the time, she was not considering her options, and does not relish change, so she had to be ‘sold’ by her colleagues that starting this venture would be good for her. Selling points were the vision of one of her future partners who knew where she wanted to be and that she intended to be in charge of her own career.

Annemarie also believes that a true partnership is rare, so she was captivated by the expressed belief that the three of them were going to be a team and do it together, and that they understood there would be ups and downs when one or the other of them wanted to have children. One of the ups and downs came early in the opening of their office when they did not yet have furniture or a phone system. So what, they decided, we’ll eat and work on the floor, but celebrate with a bottle of champagne! 

Since the beginning, it was clear they were ‘sisters’; since 2000, just like sisters, they’ve had their share of disagreements and difficulties that have required their mutual support and resolution. And to make another analogy: as in a marriage, the partnership requires brutal honesty, which is a challenging dynamic, given that, as a female, she was raised to be polite and not aggressive.

What do these three women have to say to those considering a leap into a new venture or new area of law? Here is some advice based on what they’ve seen in their practices and in the courts:

• Women are generally hesitant to assert their worth and promote themselves when asked about such things as their background, skills and fees. Taking charge in these areas is like getting into a pool of cold water; whether you do it by incremental steps to build a steely reserve or suddenly immerse yourself, JUST GET IN! As in swimming, it is amazing how warm the water feels once you’ve made the jump and the commitment.

• When you don’t have good female role models, forging your own way can be lonely and frustrating. Seek out other women who are also making the effort at entrepreneurship, and look for the successful businesswomen who are leaders in their bar groups and who appear to have a nurturing edge.

• Being kind to oneself is also difficult because of the strong work ethic we’ve developed. Our interviewees talked of working long hours waiting for someone (for Sandra, it was the ‘work police’) to look the other way so they could take a break. Having recognized they are their own monitors and bosses, they can give themselves permission for indulgences, like coming in late, shopping on the internet, and 

• The ‘big guys’ don’t always play fair, so be on the alert.

Other useful lessons that these women have learned to promote business and to reinforce their confidence as female attorneys:

• When prospective clients say: “You’re too young,” Stephanie and her partner say: “Yes, we’re young, but we’re also hungry and therefore ready to work hard to prove ourselves, do a good job and show you we’re on the up and up.” People respond positively to this honesty.

• When prospective clients have been approached by a mega-firm that may have a great reputation, they tell the individuals that they won’t be able to get through to their own attorneys because “you’re one out of a hundred. If we represent you, you’ll have the relationship with me and always be able to talk directly with me.”

• Just like Jerry McGuire, you have to step into the living room and ‘sell the deal.’
• Their research on reports from jury consultants tells them that the negative images the public has of attorneys don’t apply to women attorneys, so use your gender to your advantage—or at the very least, be confident about your female gender.

• Women aren’t accustomed to promoting their skills to their circle of friends who often don’t even know the real nature of their practices, yet once friends learn about their work and their success, those same friends are thrilled to refer business to them. Annemarie reports that when she finally took the leap with two colleagues to establish their law firm, she was amazed that people, from personal friends to law school classmates, were “coming out of the woodwork” with referrals. You too should not hesitate to ‘promote’ yourself to friends and family.

That’s it for now. Stay tuned for more conversation from budding and established entrepreneurs. Some roundtable events are in the works.

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