More Feedback for Young Women Lawyers

This is a topic that I address whenever I speak on effective leadership for young women lawyers.  However, the need for valuable feedback to young lawyers about the quality of their work is not gender specific.  They all need it, and most of them do not get enough of it.

Not giving good feedback to junior lawyers is a real failing of senior lawyers, and it lowers the level of effective leadership in law firms.  Relying on annual reviews as the only way to address issues of work product, professional behavior and related issues is not serving the young lawyers or the law firms well.  The feedback must be much more often and much more strategic to help guide young lawyers in their careers.

Now, fortunately, we find that large law firms are looking for feedback on the effectiveness of their own feedback.  Fancy that! reports that some large firms, here and abroad, are either abandoning annual reviews in favor of “consistent feedback and dialogue” or are starting more regular conversations about performance.  Young lawyers today, like generations of lawyers before them, are looking for praise, at most, and constructive criticism, at least — and they are entitled to it.

In my book on effective leadership for women lawyers, I praise Reed Smith for the metrics-based women’s initiative developed at that firm, and now I have more reason to say “hat’s off” to that firm.  According to the Legal Intelligencer article, Reed Smith is developing a pilot program utilizing a real-time feedback app to allow partners to give effective feedback on performance regardless of time zones.  The inability to bridge time zones and walk down the hall to say “well done” is described as a strong motive to develop an effective program to improve the feedback.

The article also reports specific efforts at two other firms.  Blank Rome has been in the process of “revolutionizing” its evaluation methods for several years and is using corporate America as a model.  The first step was to simplify the year-end review form and make it available year round.  The program also includes a midyear “check-in” informal discussion and a “100-hour dialogue” for the new lawyers with the partners they have worked for the most.  And, Ballard Spahr is working on software to prompt partners to provide feedback at the time when an associate completes an assignment.

Other firms may be working on similar programs, and it all is very good news.  Associate lawyers want to be treated like their work is important and deserves attention.  There is nothing more frustrating to them than not having their efforts recognized, and it makes them feel like mere cogs in a wheel.  Young lawyers tell me that it is not unusual to send work product to partners without having receipt acknowledged — just receipt, nothing more.

Now we have evidence that law firms are recognizing what very bad strategy for retaining and advancing talent that is and how it demonstrates ineffective leadership.  I hope the efforts described in this article turns into the rule rather than the exception.





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A Strong Message about Leadership for Women Lawyers

Today I write to you about effective leadership, recognizing that yesterday effective leadership intersected with politics in the American experience.  However, there should be nothing of partisan politics in seeing that experience for what it was:  Killing the messenger.

When I speak to audiences of attorneys and law students about effective leadership, as addressed in my book, Best Friends at the Bar:  Top-Down Leadership for Women Lawyers, one of the concepts that I stress is taking responsibility for your own actions and not killing the messenger.  It is a fundamental theme of effective leadership, as recognized by the most well-respected global leadership trainers, including my own personal leadership guru, Marshall Goldsmith.

Former FBI Director James Comey was not fired by the American President because of something he had done in the past.  He clearly was fired for something that it was feared he would do in the future.  Comey had made it clear that he was pursuing the investigation into White House personnel — including or not including the President, however, was not clear — as actions of those individuals may or may not relate to what has become known as “The Russian Problem.” 

That was what Comey did —- and that is why he was punished.  If you have any doubt about that, consider the fact that Comey’s past actions all had been praised by the President, time and time again.  In fact, those past actions may have benefited the President in getting him elected to the highest office in the land.

Your legal career will call on you repeatedly to become an effective leader — in small ways and in much larger ways.  To be an effective leader, you must be honorable, honest, and maintain your dignity.  You must not blame others, and you must not kill the messenger.  You cannot be or do any of those things if you compromise yourself with actions that you cannot defend.

Start now, at the beginning of your career so that doing the honorable, honest and dignified thing becomes second nature to you.  Do as former Attorney General Eric Holder tweeted this morning to the career men and women at the Department of Justice and the FBI :

You know what the job entails and how to do it. Be strong and unafraid. Duty. Honor. Country.

That just about says it all.

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Women Lawyers: Are You Imagining Gender Bias?

Talk to women lawyers, and many of them will tell you the same thing about gender bias.  That “same thing” is that, when they call it out, they are told that they are imagining things.  That they are imagining that they are being denied opportunities because of their gender.  That they are imagining that they are being held to different standards because they are women.  Yes, imagining it.

The explanations for why they may be imaging it are as lame as being told that “boys will be boys.”  According to my friend Andrea Kramer and her husband Alton Harris in their book, Breaking Through Bias: Communication Techniques for Women to Succeed at Work, other such lame explanations are:

  • “You’re too sensitive;”
  • “You can’t take a joke;”
  • “We always promote the best candidate;”
  • “We’re a real meritocracy; everyone is judged exclusively on their own merits;” and
  • “I can assure you I am not gender biased.”

I understand this completely.  Here’s my story from so many years ago.

As a first year associate, and one of only two women lawyers in a firm of over 25 men, I was assigned to a case that required travel to gather the facts and prepare for arbitration.  As the time approached when I would be traveling with a male partner, rumors started to spread in the law firm.  A particular partner was speculating aloud about a man and a woman traveling together and “one thing leading to another.”  He was using my name and including me in compromising scenarios, and it was despicable.

It also was a first.  Because I and one other female were the first women lawyers at the firm, traveling with a male colleague was a new topic of conversation.  And, the conversation was salacious.  By the time that I became aware of it, something had to be done.  Several of the other male partners offered to help, but I declined their offers.  I told them that I would take care of it myself.

So, I walked into the offending partner’s office and asked to have a word with him.  I also asked for permission to close the door, and after I did, I made it clear to him that I knew what he was saying and that I found it completely unprofessional.  I told him that I was a happily married woman and that his remarks were harming my husband as much as they were harming me.

His response was lame.  “Why, Susan, you don’t have a sense of humor,”  to which I replied, “And Mr. X, you don’t have a sense of dignity.”  I told him that I found his behavior very offensive and that it was not what I expected when I joined the law firm.   And, I told him that it needed to stop immediately.

It did stop.  He stopped the offensive speculation, and he also stopped talking to me entirely.   In fact, he did not talk to me for almost six months.  That also meant that he was not looking down my blouse or commenting on my perfume during that same time period.  AND, when he did start talking to me again, it was with new-found respect.

Remember, he was a partner, and I was a first year associate. Yes, my knees were knocking when I walked into his office.  Yes, I did not know where the conversation would lead.  Yes, I was taking a chance with my job.  But I also knew something else.

You should NEVER, put up with lame excuses for being treated unfairly because you are a woman.  Face down gender bias.  If it means that you must leave your employer, you will know that it was no place for you to begin with.

No job is worth being demeaned and disrespected.


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A Primer for Lawyer/Moms: Just Out and a Must Have

I first met Lori Mihalich-Levin soon after her first baby was born and when she was in the overwhelmed-by-baby-and-the-thought-of-returning-to-work stage.   Our lunches were enjoyable but a bit somber.  She was struggling, and I wanted to help her.

Lori and I had been connected by a mutual friend at Georgetown Law.  Although there were many years between my years at the law school and Lori’s, we had a lot in common.  Returning to law practice after not just one, but two, babies had been difficult for me, and now that was happening to Lori.  It is hard to know what to say because law practice has its own set of rules.  Nothing is easy there — especially for women.

In time, Lori figured it all out, as I knew she would.  Lori’s overwhelmed stage morphed into the wisdom-and-I-can-do-anything stage, as with so many women who experience it.  But, Lori did not stop there.  She wrote down her thoughts and developed programs to pass on to others the benefit of all she had painstakingly learned.  Lori is the exception.  First she started a “Mindful Return” program, and then she wrote a book.   In her spare time, of course!

You can read all about Lori, her book and her projects in this article in the Washington Post.  It captures all of the profiles of the book, which is made richer by myriad contributions from experts in the many fields that combine to capture a daunting experience.  Honestly, nothing in my life prepared me for the first time I had to drive away from my baby — not to the grocery store, not to the post office, and certainly not to the  law office.  It is in a league of its own for creating doubt and fear and longing.

But, that “baby” of mine is now a woman lawyer, too.  Children survive and thrive, and so do Mommy Lawyers.  But, it never hurts to have a little help from a friend.

Lori is that friend.  Get the book!


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Solutions for the Low Retention Rates for Law Firm Associates


The subject of the low retention rates for women lawyers, as published recently on, was addressed in last week’s blog.  What?  You did not read the last blog?   Shame, shame.  I write them so that you will read them and have a “leg up” in making career decisions.  Fortunately, former blogs are so easy to find on my web site.  But to help you out, here is the link to that blog.  I understand how busy you are.

The solutions offered by the article focus on the needs to run law firms more like traditional businesses to eliminate some of the administrative tasks for junior lawyers, the use of fixed fee billing arrangements to increase the exposure that junior lawyers will have to higher value projects, an increased use of technology, and clear paths to partnership and metrics-based evaluations systems in making partnership decisions.

Those are all good thoughts, and some of them might work.  However, I like to focus more directly on the causes for the high attrition in finding solutions to improve associate retention, which, of course, includes retention of women lawyers.

  • More training and mentoring for associates.  Although lack of associate training and mentoring has traditionally been a problem, it is even more true today when newbie lawyers come into law firms and are tasked with administrative jobs that require them to be stuck to computers for ten hours a day and bear little resemblance to what they envisioned as practicing law.  The focus is on billable hours, for both associates and partners, and most senior lawyers are not taking much time out to train young lawyers and mentor them.  For young lawyers, who grew up on team efforts, it is hard to feel like a member of a team under those circumstances.  They crave mentoring and feedback on their work and, when they get little of either, they get discouraged and wonder whether they made the right choice of law firm or even of career.  The answer, of course, is to provide the training and the mentoring that will keep the talent around.  Either the training and mentorship must be provided by firm lawyers or the firm is going to have to bring in consultants to take over those responsibilities.  That will mean making a choice to pay those consultants or give “credit” to lawyers who undertake those responsibilities at the firm, and both can be sticky wickets unless the critical need for training and mentorship is understood.  But, it should be worth it to the firms — especially in the talent war for associates going on these days.
  •  Open up more clear pathways to the top.  This solution is related to PPP (profit per partner) that drives a lot of decisions in law firms.  PPP is determined by how many partners share the profit pie, and it is used by established ranking entities to rate law firms and to publish those ratings.  When profitability stagnates, as it has during the recent recession, and when equity partners are not retiring during these same challenging economic times, law firms are reluctant to make more equity partners to share in the pie.  As a result, the trend has been for law firms to make more classes of non-equity partners and to slow the path to equity partnership and/or to require larger books of business to make it through the equity partnership gate.  So, there are really only two solutions.  Either law firm partners are going to have to become less greedy to retain talent or law firm management is going to have to start forcing top partners out.  If those partners are big rainmakers, you can see that it becomes a real dilemma.  So, this one is not easy either.
  • Millennials will have to adjust some of their expectations.  Millennials have different expectations about the workplace than prior generations.  Some of those are very admirable — like the aversion to the workaholic lifestyle of lawyers and the desire for less toxic work environments.  Some of them, however, are not practical in the legal setting.  Yes, law is a business, but it is a business that is highly dependent on nuanced arguments and research that do not lend easily to the rapid responses of technology.  Some of it just takes a lot of tedious and hard work.  However, that work all does not have to be done at the office, and the movement today toward telecommuting for lawyers is a step in the right direction.  It allows for improved work-life balance, and, when done right, it also leaves adequate room for the face time at the office that is critical to issues of advancement.

One way or another, law firms are going to have to address these issues.  I have been focusing on most of these issues for a decade now through the Best Friends at the Bar project, and, admittedly, the solutions are not easy.  However, that is no reason not to put our shoulders to the wheel and find effective and lasting solutions.  The future of the profession depends on it.


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Why Women Lawyers Leave Firms: Astonishing New Statistics

Why do women lawyers leave?

I have been pondering, speaking about and writing about this issue for a decade.  It is fundamental that, before we can try to fix our profession with solutions like lateral hiring, mergers and expanding into new markets, we must delve deep into the roots of the attrition problems.

For years it was hard to get law firm management to talk about the high rates of attrition for women lawyers.  For many of those years, new law graduates were plentiful, and it was a buyers’ market.  That all changed with the Great Recession and the fall off in the number of students in law schools.  Now, there is a talent war for the best of the young lawyers, and it has shifted the focus more toward retention.  That is a good thing, but the reasons for the high attrition rates — for both male and female lawyers — are still not well understood.

So, I was very pleased to read “Top 3 Reasons for Associate Attrition and 3 Ways to Combat It” on recently.  The new statistics cited in that article and the assertion that the most expensive and surprising problem facing law firms today is not client retention or salaries but associate attrition is validation of so many of the programs that I have presented over the years to law firms and bar associations.  And, make no mistake, this “problem” is all about women lawyers — because women are at the tops of their law school graduation classes and often represent the best of the associate talent in the profession.  Losing that kind of talent can hurt a lot.

According to a report by Overflow Legal Network relied on in the article:

  • Almost 46 percent of associates leave their firm within the first three years, and 81 percent leave in the first five years; and
  • At a 400-person law firms, associate attrition can result in losses of over $25 million annually — not including the knowledge and client relationships that depart with departing associates.

Yes, you read that right.  $25 million.  That is an amazing and grim statistic, and it should grab the attention of every law firm manager.  These new statistics are consistent with a NALP survey that I have relied on for years, which found that 76 percent of women lawyers leave Big Law in the first five years, but that survey was about women associates and was explained by work-life issues associated with starting families.  However, this new statistic is not limited to women lawyers and it is not limited to Big Law.  Without those qualifiers, it is shocking and needs to be taken very seriously.

The causes for this high rate of attrition, as cited in the article, are:

  • Lack of associate training and mentoring;
  • Longer partnership tracks and requirements for larger books of business to protect the Profits Per Partner at the tops of firms; and
  • The expectations of members of the millennial generation regarding things like work-life balance, the role that technology should play in the work place, and clearly defined measures of success.

So, you say, what are the solutions?  You will have to stay tuned for next week’s blog to find out!

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Soft Skills for Lawyers

Mastery of soft skills for lawyers — men and women, alike — is becoming more and more important all the time.  In fact, I am working with some tech geniuses on a digital program for assessing these very skills, and I am very excited about the applications and potential of the program to help young practitioners improve the skills that will determine success and upward mobility.

Law schools and law firms are not providing most of this content, ostensibly for curriculum control and cost containment reasons, and, yet, research confirms that 80% of success in business is attributable to soft skills.  The law profession is no exception.

Although the emphasis on soft skills may be new, the concepts themselves are not.  The buzz words and the research confirming the importance of soft skills simply have raised the visibility of these concepts.  We always have known the importance of communication skills, networking skills and inner office politics, for instance.  The labels have just changed, and we have upped the ante for developing these skills.  You are either in the game with these skills or you are on the sidelines without them.

I have been writing and speaking about the importance of  “soft skills” for years, including chapters in my first book, Best Friends at the Bar:  What Women Need to Know about a Career in the Law, Wolters Kluwer/Aspen Publishers, 2009.  Chapters devoted to the following subjects make the case: Be a Team Player; Find Good Mentors; Ask for Help When You Need It; Find a Comfort Zone for Promoting Work; Treat Support Staff Well; and Watch Your Mouth.  The fact that my books are targeted to women lawyers should not work as a limitation of any kind.  All lawyers, men and women, alike, need soft skills to succeed in the profession.

To discuss soft skills, we first must define the “hard skills” that lawyers need and eliminate them from the discussion. The hard skills are the ones that come to mind first when most young lawyers contemplate what they need to succeed in the law. Those include intelligence, strong analytical skills, excellent writing skills, good judgment, and diligence (including lack of procrastination). These are the kinds of skills that most law schools concentrate on in developing practice-ready graduates and preparing them to pass bar exams.

While it is true that these hard skills are critical to success in the law profession, they are not enough. There is so much more that goes into being successful as a lawyer, and those things cannot be overlooked. Disregarding them is to proceed at your own risk and setting yourself up for almost certain disappointment.

To quote a friend of mine, a partner in the largest law firm in the world, “Everyone in our firm is smart. Some are smarter than others. The degree of smart is not what typically determines success. It is the soft skills. The ones who pay attention to the soft skills generally fare better than the others.”

Here’s a list of some of the soft skills that you need to develop:

Being a good communicator and a good listener;
Having the ability to accept feedback and use it positively it improve your product;
Learning to network and develop work;
Having a good attitude about work and getting the job done;
Becoming a good time manager;
Having adaptability to a variety of job settings;
Being assertive in the workplace to get the best experience possible;
Being comfortable with collaboration and being a member of a team;
Having confidence in yourself and your abilities;
Being polite and courteous;
Being a creative thinker;
Developing management and leadership skills;
Developing negotiation skills;
Being astute about office politics;
Having a sense of humor and not taking yourself too seriously;
Developing and using emotional intelligence;
Being empathetic; and
Finding mentors and becoming a mentor to others.

Master these soft skills to compliment the hard skills, and you will distinguish yourself from the crowd. To do that, you will have to get out of your office, get to know the people you work with, volunteer for assignments, go to the social events, and take advantage of the opportunity to have the other members of the firm get to know you. Grinding it out at your computer day in and day out to bill more hours than anyone else without even going to lunch with colleagues is a big mistake. When your name comes up in an associate review or later in consideration for partner, you do not want the decision makers wondering who on earth you are.

Make the decision makers aware of you by mastering the soft skills.


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Will Flexible Work Models Improve Law Firm Culture?

Below is a copy of the op-ed that I wrote and that was published on March 21, 2017 in National Jurist “Lawyer & Statesman” on-line magazine.  I hope that you find it interesting and that you, too, will gain some hope that the events described present positive changes for women lawyers and for all lawyers in law firm cultures.

The link to the op-ed is:

Op-ed: Flexible work models should improve law firm culture
March 21, 2017

By Susan Smith Blakely

I have seen the effects of insensitive law firm cultures in my own career and the careers of so many others. Although the most severe impact has been to women lawyers with family and childcare responsibilities, male practitioners also have suffered from the inflexible demands of a profession that has refused to examine itself critically.

Until now, perhaps.

Within a week’s time, announcements by Big Law players on major work-life initiatives in their law firms have provided hope that the sands may be shifting in favor of more reasonable policies and programs to reflect a changing world. This is recognition that the millennial generation, especially, is capable of embracing current technology that could benefit both themselves and their law firms.

Last week, Morgan Lewis announced its initiative allowing associates, who have been at the firm for at least two years, the opportunity to work from home two days a week. Similar announcements followed this week by Jackson Lewis and Baker McKenzie.

Peter May, Baker McKenzie’s chief talent officer, described the incentive behind the new program this way: “If you actually create an environment that is flexible, that enables people to be at their best no matter where they happen to be, you’re going to have much more engaged employees. If they’re more engaged they’re going to be more productive, and if they’re more productive, that’s going to have huge organizational implications.”

Morgan Lewis’s rationale for its forward-thinking program, however, was the one that got my attention and buoyed my spirits the most. That rationale revolved around the recognition that losing talent is very destructive to law firms and that making tested and proven work-life concessions will help protect talent in a very competitive industry.

Yes, this rationale is more law firm centric, but it reflects the truth that we all know to be the greatest motivator for change: Competition. Let’s call it what it is. Programs like this create a bond between employer and employee that often results in the kind of loyalty that traditionally has been missing in law firm cultures. One Morgan Lewis partner referred to the new program as necessary but very expensive. Another member of the firm described the program as “a reflection of the trust between the associates and the firm.”

We should take this as good news — very good news — and we should give the prescient leadership of these law firms the credit they deserve. We also can hope that other law firms will follow, and that what we are seeing is a law profession that is coming of age and throwing off the shackles of the past that are not only confining in a modern world but also are destructive.

As I wrote in a Corporate Counsel article “Is Work-Life Balance for Lawyers a Hopeless Goal in the Legal Profession?”:

“The only thing standing between the current workaholic culture of law firms and this brighter future for lawyers is greed. It was the greed of Wall Street that brought on the Great Recession in 2008, and that experience should serve as a harbinger to law firm leadership. Greed and pursuit of high profits at the expense of the well-being of lawyers and their families will lead to no good.”

Let’s call it what it is and make all efforts to do better.

Susan Smith Blakely is a lawyer, author, speaker and career coach. She is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin and Georgetown University Law Center. She is the founder of LegalPerspectivesLLC, and her Best Friends at the Bar Book series addresses the low retention and advancement rates for women lawyers. She can be reached through her website,

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