Adding Value Is Not Always a Good Thing for Women Lawyers

Is this a confusing title?  Probably.  That is because “adding value” can be a confusing.  Or rather, when to add value and when not to can be a confusing choice.  Let’s try to make it easier.

I discuss “adding value” in my book, Best Friends at the Bar: Top-Down Leadership for Women Lawyers (Wolters Kluwer/Aspen Publishers 2015).  It is a concept that most leaders do not understand, and there is a very good reason for that.  Most leaders think that they know everything about everything and that whatever they have to say on the subject needs to be said.

Not so much.  Consider this.  You are a leader in a law firm.  A junior lawyer comes to you with an idea that she thinks is a really good idea, and she is very excited about the possibilities.  Most often what you, the leader, does in response is to interrupt and wax prolific about all you know on the subject, how many times you have addressed the issue and how you can improve the idea of the junior lawyer.  If you think that approach is unproductive, you are right.  That kind of “adding value” is discouraging to the junior lawyer and most likely will be the beginning of a not-so-valuable relationship.

How about another approach?  You are a leader in a law firm, and the same young woman lawyer comes to you very excited about her idea.  You listen — yes, actually listen instead of speak.  You let this enthusiastic young woman talk about her idea and all of its nuances, and you LISTEN.  At the conclusion of her “sell,” you compliment her on her initiative and tell her that you hope she will continue this kind of innovative thinking.  You resist being the center of attention in favor of encouraging and mentoring a junior person.  If the idea needs improvement and refinement or further discussion, there is plenty of time for that once you have established the foundation that the idea is worthy of your consideration.

Leadership is difficult.  It means having the patience to listen, encourage and develop talent even if there are hundreds of pieces of paper on your desk that need attention. It means not needing to be in the spotlight all the time and putting someone else there to shine.

But, effective leadership pays off in spades.  It should never be overlooked.   Effective leaders know that and do not have to “add value” all of the time.  They have learned that much of what we say does not have to be said.  They have learned when to talk and when to listen.

For more on adding value, see this recent blog by my leadership mentor and the world-recognized leadership guru Marshall Goldsmith.  The comments of his C-Suite clients will help drive these concepts home beautifully.

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Everything Women Lawyers NEVER Wanted to Know about Gender Bias

Sometimes you just have to learn what you would rather not know.  Here is a case in point.

Gender bias is a terrible and destructive thing.  We all seem to understand express and intentional bias, and there are laws to protect us against it in the workplace.  That is the easiest kind of bias to spot.  It is obvious when someone tells you that you cannot have the case because you are a woman or when someone targets you with a gender slur. 

However, it is more complicated with implicit gender bias, which can be subtle and unintentional but also can be just as destructive to a career.  To learn more about implicit bias and how to spot it and eliminate it, read the new book, Breaking Through Bias: Communication Techniques for Women to Succeed at Work (Bibliomotion, 2016), released last week.  Written by my friend Andrea Kramer, a partner at McDermott Will in Chicago, and her husband Al Harris, a law firm founder, it is a virtual primer on bias in the workplace and how to overcome it.  Andie and Al have been studying these issues for years in their efforts to improve advancement of women lawyers in law firms.  Now, they are making all of their research and findings available to you as a super assist in advancing your talents and your careers.

For more on this subject, you also should look at my book, Best Friends at the Bar: Top-Down Leadership for Women Lawyers (Wolters Kluwer/Aspen 2015).  The topic of unconscious bias (another name for implicit bias) is discussed in Chapter One of that book because it is so critical to the discussion of retaining and advancing women lawyers.  I include fabulous advice from the legendary lawyer Mary Cranston of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman on achieving gender diversity and combating gender bias in law firms.  Here is a summary:

  • Push from the top.  There must be leadership from the top not just lip service.  The leaders must understand unconscious bias.  An example is identifying women as having less potential for leadership and stereotyping them as having no “bandwidth”;
  • Put women in top jobs and let them prove themselves.  Give them a chance to succeed instead of making unfounded assumptions; and
  • Give women gender training so that they are more proficient in recognizing and controlling gender stereotyping.  Women must have this information so that they do not play into the gender stereotypes.

I might also add the obvious — that the male lawyers need that same gender training!  There is plenty on that in the book as well.

So, join Andie and Al and me in our pursuit to make the law a better and more rewarding profession for women.  As they say in their promotional materials, the cost of a book is less than the cost of lunch. 

Skip lunch one day, if that is what it takes, and protect your future!

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Thought For The Day

“As you grow up, always tell the truth, do no harm to others, and don’t think you are the most important being on earth.”

Harper Lee

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Thought For The Day

“What if it becomes less about how we look and more about how much we care? What if it becomes less about how much money we earn and more about how much we share our good fortune? Imagine a world where who we are in our hearts is the ultimate status symbol.”

Amy Leigh Mercree

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Thought For The Day

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”

Benjamin Franklin

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Balance or Not? What Women Lawyers Need to Know

Work-life balance is not easy.  Yes, I wrote an entire book about it, but that does not mean that I think it is anything but difficult and challenging.  I acknowledge that in the Prologue to Best Friends at the Bar:  The New Balance for Today’s Woman Lawyer (Wolters Kluwer Law & Business/Aspen Publishers, 2012), where I propose a new balance that puts more emphasis on self.  After all, if you do not take care of yourself, you will burn out early in your attempts to take care of others.

Case in point is an interview with a former CFO of Lehman Brothers that appeared in the Washington Post on Sunday, May 1, 2016.  Erin Callan Montella spent twelve years at Lehman before being promoted in 2007 to Chief Financial Officer.  In that ascent, she immediately became one of the most powerful women on Wall Street.  Now, at age 50 and as the mother of a 14-year-old baby girl, Montella has written a book, “Full Circle:  A Memoir of Leaning In Too Far and the Journey Back.”  From her interview, I believe that it might be a good beach read for you this summer.

First of all, I like that she is willing to address “leaning in” as it applies to a 100-hour a week perch — not unlike life in the fast lane of Big Law.  Montella is a former tax lawyer, which was the foundation for her impressive climb to CFO, and her work at Lehman was similar to the Big Law lifestyle, with the exception, of course, that Lehman was on its way toward bankruptcy from its exposure in the subprime mortgage scandal during that time.

However, the parallels are instructive, and Montella’s approach in the interview is measured and respectful of the opportunities she had and her experiences.  She takes responsibility for her own choices regarding work-life balance, and she does not blame it all on a workaholic industry.  She says,

“The big lesson that I am trying to communicate with my story is you can take it too far.  You can have a great career and make it the center of your universe.  That’s what it was for me and did not lead to a happy outcome.” 

Her observations about being a woman in a male-dominated workplace also rang true to me. 

“I have always understood that being a woman on Wall Street cut two ways.  There was a real positive to being unique with a different style.  That part of the equation is not discussed often, but it shouldn’t be dismissed.  There’s a lot of discussion of the negative consequences that are all too familiar.”

Montella has now thrown herself into motherhood.  But, she also recognizes the imbalance of that decision.  “Putting 100 percent of yourself into your career for 20 years, then putting 100 percent of yourself into your husband and family after that is not some new definition of balance that I ascribe to.  I don’t advocate this approach.”

Lots to think about in that piece and, I am sure, in the book.  Let me know what you think.

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The Gap Year and How It Affects Young Lawyers

The recent announcement by the White House that Malia Obama will be taking a year off after high school graduation before starting at Harvard University in the Fall of 2017 has drawn fire from critics, as you might expect — because everything that is remotely connected to politics draws fire these days.  The critics are lined up on social media either asserting that “gap years” are for the wealthy only and, therefore, should be shunned or that Malia is failing to get on with adulthood.  Both arguments seem crazy to me.

For one thing, taking a year off before starting college — or before starting law school, which is why I am addressing the issue — has a lot of merit in a world where too many students drop out of college when they have no idea what they want to do when they grow up.  Secondly, after eight years growing up in the White House, I only can imagine that Malia may have been forced to grow up too fast and assume too many adult-like stances.  She probably needs a break.

Taking time to get some practical experience in the real world is a good idea before embarking on the pressures of a highly-competitive university or law school.  That is why my husband and I asked both of our children to take at least two years off after graduating from college to work before starting law school.  Yes, it is true that they both had graduated from the same highly-regarded undergraduate university and had worked hard majoring in competitive programs, but that was not the primary reason for our request.  Rather, it had more to do with them facing challenges like having jobs they did not like and dealing with bosses who were unreasonable and difficult.  That IS the real world, and we wanted them to have that experience before undertaking a very demanding experience like law school.  We wanted them to understand their options and to choose well about their futures.

The “gap year” serves the same purpose.  In our current environment of uncertainty about so many things in a global community, taking time to consider the options and gain some practical experience is particularly important.  One of the commenters quoted in the LinkedIn coverage of Malia’s decision stated that “life is not linear.”  No, it is not.  There are many jumps and starts and stops along the way.  That why life is such a beautiful learning experience.

Don’t be so afraid of falling behind in your quest for success.  Take whatever time you need to be as certain as possible about what you want your life to be 45 years into the future.  That is approximately the amount of time that you will work to be able to afford retirement.  It is not an easy decision, and it should not be rushed.

“Gap on, ” I say.  Or not.  Whatever works for you.  That is the point.  It is your decision, and it should not be open season for the critics.

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Thought For The Day

“Fear is a reaction. Courage is a decision.”

Sir Winston Churchill

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