“Hard work spotlights the character of people: some turn up their sleeves, some turn up their noses, and some don’t turn up at all.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt
I write a lot about leadership in law firms. In fact, my last book, Best Friends at the Bar: Top-Down Leadership for Women Lawyers, is all about that subject. In that book, I address the elements of effective leadership by presenting examples of good leadership and bad leadership. Unfortunately, there are a lot of examples of bad leadership to fill those pages.
An important part of effective leadership in law firms revolves around mentorship. Mentoring young lawyers and helping them to develop their career paths and identify and maximize on their talents is key to career success for the young lawyers and long range success for the law firm.
However, far too many law firms do not have effective mentoring programs. That is especially true of large firms. Small and medium sized firms may not have formal mentoring programs, but the nature of those practices as team oriented tends to produce many more mentoring experiences than in large firms.
The failure of law firms to take mentoring seriously is a boon to my business because the kind of mentoring and career counseling that should be going on in law firms falls to career counselors like me. But, still, I am complaining. For you. I know the value of effective mentoring, and I want all of you to have that advantage.
All mentoring programs are not equal. Effective mentoring programs are different from mentoring programs that are designed for recruiting value and not given much priority in practice. Firms often view mentoring as too time intensive, and that does not have to be the case.
Some kinds of effective mentoring are so fundamental and take so little time that it is mind boggling that firms pay so little attention to them. Things like having periodic conversations with newbie lawyers about their lives —weekend activities, the ball game, vacation plans and myriad other topics that can make a young lawyer feel like an integral part of the organization. Things like providing feedback on work, especially when that feedback is positive. Things like explaining to a young lawyer his or her role in the case or the matter to assign value to that young lawyer’s efforts.
The truth is that too many associates sit in their offices day after day without any conversation with senior lawyers. That does not go far in making them feel like the lawyers they want to be and inspiring them to come to work every day with positive and hopeful attitudes.
If you are a law student, ask about mentoring programs in your job interviews, and give special value to firms that not only talk the talk but also seem to walk the walk. To be sure about what you are hearing, ask young associates at the firm about their experiences with mentoring. If you are an associate lawyer and not having a good mentoring experience at your firm, talk to a senior lawyer about it. Firm management should be happy that you care about your career path and developing your skills enough to want guidance from experienced professionals. And, if you are a firm leader or manager, make sure that your firm steps up in the mentoring arena. Set the example and establish goals and objectives for an effective mentorship program.
For more on mentoring, read this article. It is written by a partner in Big Law, who experienced valuable mentoring as a summer associate at the same law firm and has made mentoring junior lawyers a priority because of his own positive experiences.
So, you don’t have to believe me. Get it from the top!
I recently read this explanation for the high rates of attrition among women lawyers, especially women in litigation:
Male lawyers are conditioned to be overconfident decision makers whereas female lawyers are conditioned to believe they’re impostors, not smart enough or not ready. That conditioning starts from the way we’re brought up as boys and girls and the cultural ideas that are ingrained in us from early childhood.
Think about that. Imagine a bunch of boys gathered for a game of pickup basketball on a Saturday afternoon. What would you hear from those boys? Bravado? Yes, plenty. Bragging about their abilities and how much better he is than the rest? Yes, certainly? All of them thinking he is headed to the NBA.
Then ask yourself whether you can imagine a group of young girls acting tha way. The answer is likely no. A group of young girls would be sizing themselves up against each other in a very different way. Does my hair look good enough? What about my makeup? I wish I had a new dress like hers. I am sure the boys like her better than me.
And, the girls are not all to blame. Women have been taught for generations that bragging is not lady-like. And it is not. It also is not man-like. It is obnoxious from both males and females, but men get away with it because of cultural norms.
But, you are stuck with being a girl and a woman. Not smart enough? Not ready? An imposter? Now tell me that you never have felt that way. Don’t bother because I probably would not believe you anyway.
The differences between the way that male and female lawyers evaluate their capabilities does not fall purely along gender lines, however. Surely, many young male lawyers have found themselves feeling the same kinds of insecurities as the young female lawyers, but the men seem to get over it faster. As the young men become more capable, they gain confidence. Not so for many young women.
Women lawyers really need to work on the confidence factor. The law profession is difficult and can make you question your competence on a regular basis. But, it has been my experience that confidence trumps competence every time.
And, you have so much competence to be confident about. For the most part, you excelled in undergraduate schools, gained entrance into prestigious law schools, and statistics show that women graduate at the top of their law school classes in terms of gpa and honors more often than men. These are not small accomplishments. Treat them with the significance they deserve.
Make it a point to be consciously confident, and stop being too humble. Humble doesn’t help when it keeps you under the radar and holds you back. Check your persona to make sure that you are presenting a confident face to the world. Check your communications to make sure that you are talking in a confident manner. That does not mean bragging and claiming to know what you do not know. That is obnoxious and dangerous, but there is a confident way of saying that you do not know but will find out and come back with the information.
Start developing your professional brand and an “elevator speech” that reflects confidence and competence and references your strengths, your abilities and your unique perspectives. If your brand is right for you, it will inspire and empower you to connect effectively with both clients and colleagues.
Stop beating yourself up with the NOTS — not good enough, not smart enough, not this, not that. Stop thinking of yourself as a fake or an imposter. By those standards you never will be good enough.
And you are good enough. You just are not recognizing it and marketing it. Play to your strengths not your weaknesses.
I know that I have published list after list of the “Best Firms for Women Lawyers” over the years in my blogs and on my website. It seems like the right thing to do for someone who has been devoted to the retention and advancement of women lawyers for more than a decade.
But, honestly, I did it with some reluctance. I always was a little skeptical about how those lists were compiled, whether the research was based on an even playing field for all contenders, and the nature of the relationships between the ranking entities and the firms ranked highest on their lists.
Now a new batch of those lists (from Law 360, Working Mother, and more) has been released, and it turns out that I am not the only one with these kinds of questions and concerns. One of the most savvy law reporters around has doubts similar to my own and has looked critically at the lists and the law firms that appear there.
In her article, “‘Best’ Law Firms for Women? Really?,” Vivia Chen of The Careerist and ALM calls the lists “confusing, if not misleading. And sad.”
Here are some of her concerns for you to keep in mind as you read and rely on those lists:
We all are trained as fact finders for three long years in law school and in our practices, and we must look behind representations to discover the facts and who really deserves credit and who does not. We need to expect that of ourselves.
For more on the “lists” and progress in gender diversity at law firms, see “Who’s The Best? (Leading Law Firms for Women)” in the current issue of the ABA Journal.