Top-Down Leadership for Women Lawyers

As you know, Top-Down Leadership for Women Lawyers is the name of my new Best Friends at the Bar book.  But, what exactly does that mean?  To answer that question for you, I am reprinting the Foreword to the book here.  I hope it makes you want to read the book, as I believe you should.  You will understand lawyers and law firms and where you fit in on the law firm spectrum much better after you do.  You also will understand what you need to know and what law firm leaders should be telling you. 

The Foreword was written by an esteemed biglaw litigator, Neil Dilloff of DLA,and I am honored to have him as a contributor.  He has “been there and done that” more than most any lawyer I know.  As a law firm partner and a member of the management committee, Neil understands law firms inside and out.  He also understands the challenges to young lawyers who have not yet figured out the culture of law firms.  Here is what Neil Dilloff has to say.

“Susan Blakely’s third book in the Best Friends at the Bar series builds on her first two and challenges law firm management to make room at the top in a direct, but non-mandatory reading for both constituencies—women lawyers and law firm management.

The fact that one-half of all law school graduates are women, but that few are in firm leadership positions, demonstrates the issue and underscores the need for a book like this. Susan Blakely explores and analyzes this inconsistency and gives meaningful and insightful advice to both today’s women lawyers and those firm leaders in a position to effect change. She explains in a systematic and convincing way why remedying this imbalance is in the interest of law firms from internal culture and morale standpoints as well as constituting good business practice.

In my 40-plus years of practice, including stints as a Navy JAG lawyer, a law firm associate, a law firm partner, a member of law firm management, and as an adjunct professor of law, I have had the benefit and privilege of mentoring numerous women lawyers and law students. It is obvious that many have the talent and common sense to lead. However, until now law firms have not made it a priority to retain the talent that women lawyers represent and to develop them as leaders. This book addresses those issues straight on and without apology.

Ms. Blakely’s book is designed to serve as a catalyst. She not only identifies the problems, but she also includes valuable advice about the solutions, including helpful suggestions on the substance of conversations that law firm leaders need to have with young women lawyers in developing them into leaders. Her advice to women lawyers and the male legal establishment is not only inspirational, but pragmatic. In addition to making arguments as to fairness, Ms. Blakely appeals directly to law firm management on the basis of good business. Today, many in-house counsel are women and many have left law firms to join corporate America. There is no doubt that law firms should recognize that having women partners and associates interact in a meaningful way with their corporate female counterparts can be financially beneficial to the law firm. Ms. Blakely makes the case for this financial benefit as well as others and also explores the impact of the retention of the talent of women lawyers in the aggregate to the succession plans for law firms. She is not just advocating for the women lawyers, she also is advocating for sound law firm management and for the future of the law profession.

Ms. Blakely pulls no punches in putting her finger on the reality of today’s BigLaw legal marketplace—money. While this may sound crass, it is the truth. While quality as opposed to quantity is still important, the rewards and privileges in large law firms go disproportionately to the rainmakers. That is not to say that many highly compensated rainmakers aren’t also good lawyers, but those of us who have been in the profession for a long time can name many excellent lawyers who are undercompensated because they don’t have millions of dollars of their own business. As Ms. Blakely points out, in order for women lawyers to get their fair share of “the pie,” they must seek out opportunities to generate business, and it is very much in a law firm’s interest to help them succeed in doing so.

Although progress for women in taking the step from partner in a law firm to a leadership position has been slow, it is occurring. In my own firm, at one point, the highest paid partner was a woman. She also was on the Executive Committee. Beyond the law firm world, nations, states, and large corporations already have made women leaders—prime ministers, presidents, cabinet officials, governors, members of Congress, CEOs, CFOs, etc. As is typical in the law firm world, the legal profession lags behind. Ms. Blakely suggests ways in which women can seek and obtain leadership positions without unduly “rocking the boat” and why their efforts are in the best interests of diversity in the law firm ranks.

A discussion of whether and how women lawyers can achieve law firm leadership positions shouldn’t even be necessary, but it is. Susan Blakely understands that and approaches the subjects with finesse and with the overall theme of teamwork to benefit all players. Clients get it and so should law firms. It is my pleasure to recommend this important book to you and to congratulate Ms. Blakely on providing this virtual primer on effective leadership for law firm leaders and the young women they lead.”

Neil J. Dilloff
Retired Partner
DLA Piper LLP (US)

I hope this makes you want to read the book.  You will be much better prepared for your profession if you do.  Happy reading!

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Thought For The Day: On Courage

“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”

Anaïs Nin

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Thought For The Day: On Overcoming Obstacles

“Do not think of today’s failures, but of the success that may come tomorrow. You have set yourselves a difficult task, but you will succeed if you persevere; and you will find a joy in overcoming obstacles. Remember, no effort that we make to attain something beautiful is ever lost.”

Helen Keller

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More Lessons from the NAWL Conference

In the last blog, I reported some of the content from the National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL) Conference last week titled “Harnessing Our Power To Lead.”  The topic of leadership in the law profession is very important to me, as evidenced by my new book, Best Friends at the Bar:  Top-Down Leadership for Women Lawyers.  The book emphasizes the importance of developing good leadership skills as senior lawyers and also as junior lawyers.  Ultimately, you will be called on to lead, and learning good leadership behaviors sooner rather than later will give you a head start on the group.

Another interesting conference break-out session was “The Art of Self-Promotion:  It’s Not Bragging, It’s Building Your Brand.”  This, too, is a favorite theme of mine.  Earlier this year I moderated a panel on this subject at the Georgetown Law Women’s Forum, and it was a very popular program.  There is a fine line between bragging and using your brand to develop work, and it is all about the “art” of good self-promotion. 

The NAWL panelists were two women law firm partners and a woman in-house general counsel, and they started out by discussing some myths about women lawyers, including:

  • Women lack confidence; and
  • Women need to be “fixed” to succeed in the law profession.

I often start my speeches with myths about women lawyers, so I completely identify with this approach.  Get the misinformation out of the way so that you can make room for the stuff that is true and very important. 

On the topic of women lacking confidence, the panel agreed that women are brutally self honest, sometimes to their detriment, and that it often is misinterpreted as lack of confidence.  They cited the same study that I discuss in my new book:  When presented with 10 criteria for competence for a work assignment, men will be satisfied if they meet one criterion and take that as an indicator that they are qualified for the task.  Women will hardly be satisfied unless they meet at least nine of the criteria.  Although honesty is a virtue in most settings, it can be taken too far.  Women lawyers must get beyond this impossibly high standard if they are going to be able to compete.

As for women needing “fixing,” the panel agreed that there is nothing to fix.  Women lawyers must do what comes natural for them.  They should not try to copy others, and they should develop their own styles and brands by focusing on their strengths.  As one panelist said, “Do not try to develop muscles that you do not have.  Develop those that you do have, and make those assets work for you.”

One of my favorite quotes of the conference came from a law firm partner on this panel.  She said, “It is all about enthusiasm and joy.”  I love this!  Enthusiasm and joy are contagious, and they are very effective methods of self-promotion.  To ensure that you combine joy and enthusiasm with good content, the panelists suggested that you have a “buddy” for the purpose of practicing promotion.  Practice making pitches and comfortable ways to ask for work with your buddy within that “safe place” before you venture out into the world to do if for real.  The audience was reminded that practice makes perfect.

Other salient points included:

  • Push the envelope and stretch authentically by identifying your brand.  Your comfort zone is usually too conservative, and you need to get beyond it;
  • Choose comfortable environments and events to launch your promotional skills.  Be intentional and strategic but think of it as just conversations;
  • Act, dress and present yourself for the job you want not the one you have; and
  • Be true to your brand.  Do not let your brand move away from you through pressure from others.

I think you would agree from these examples that the NAWL Conference was terrific.  I hope to see you there next year — for your own good!


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Thought For The Day: On Commitment

“Freedom is not the absence of commitments, but the ability to choose – and commit myself to – what is best for me.”

Paulo Coelho

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Lessons from the NAWL Conference

Last week I attended the National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL) Annual Conference in NYC.  It was an especially good time for me to be with that group because my new book, Best Friends at the Bar:  Top-Down Leadership for Women Lawyers, had come out the week of the conference.  Coincidentally, the theme of this year’s conference was “Harnessing Our Power To Lead,” and there was a lot of interest in the book.  It was a great time to connect with fellow women lawyers and catch up on what is important to them in a rapidly-changing profession.

The breakout session, “Lessons From Men Who Lead By Example” was of particular interest to me, especially as it relates to the new book.  The panel consisted of two male corporate general counsel and a male managing partner of a national law firm.  The premise was that women need the support of men in the profession in meeting the challenge to raise the retention rates and increase the opportunities for advancement to leadership and management for women in the profession.

All of the panelists agreed that unconscious gender bias needs to be talked about and eliminated.  If you are uncertain what unconscious gender bias is, I suggest that you read about it in my new book, particularly Chapter One “Why Women Lawyers Leave.”  It is a subject you need to know about.  The panelists emphasized that women need to have the same opportunities to succeed as men in the profession, and that individuals and organizations must be held accountable to make that happen. They also agreed that women are very strong and that women lawyers should have the opportunity to decide their own limitations without those limitations being predisposed by others.  I loved the reference to Eleanor Roosevelt’s quote:  “A women is like a tea bag.  You never know how strong she is until you put her in hot water.”  Remember that one!

Another quote, this time from the law firm managing partner, caught my attention.  To assure that talented women lawyers join his firm and continue in the practice, he said that he makes sure he sends the message that “others may not care about you, but I do.”  I have been suggesting to law firm managers and senior lawyers for years that they keep several of my books on hand to give to women recruits who they really want to join their firms.  They can get a leg up on the competition by handing the young interviewee a book and demonstrating that they care about the futures and successes of women in the practice.  It is so easy, and the message is so powerful.  Most young women would be tempted to join that firm right on the spot!

Here are a few more messages from this impressive panel:

  • Women lawyers do not want privilege.  They want equality;
  • When you are being marginalized, power through it.  People will “try you” whenever they can.  You need to let them know who they are dealing with, with respect and dignity; and
  • Always stay true to your values.

It was a great conference.  Tune into the next blog for a discussion of the breakout session “The Art of Self-Promotion:  It’s Not Bragging, It’s Building Your Brand.”

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Thought For The Day: On Joy

“Joy is the holy fire that keeps our purpose warm and our intelligence aglow.”

Helen Keller

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Thought For The Day: On Determination

“Your opponent, in the end, is never really the player on the other side of the net, or the swimmer in the next lane, or the team on the other side of the field, or even the bar you must high-jump. Your opponent is yourself, your negative internal voices, your level of determination.”

Grace Lichtenstein

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