Hurdles to Career Advancement for Women Lawyers

Career advancement is often a challenge for women lawyers. Although laws prohibit gender inequality in the workplace and policies for gender equity have been adopted by law employers, much of the advancement challenge for women is up to them to solve.

The truth underlying the challenge is that career advancement is much harder for most women than for most men, and that certainly is true in the law profession. If it were not true, the percentage of female equity partners would far surpass the 20% that it is today and has been for awhile. While it also is true that some of that low percentage is the result of the choices that women lawyers make in pursuit of work-life balance, there are other factors at work in limiting advancement opportunities for women lawyers.

Some of the struggles for women are laid out in the book How Women Rise by Marshall Goldsmith and Sally Helgesen. Topics explored there include:

  • Reluctance to claim achievements;
  • Expecting others to notice and reward contributions;
  • Building rather than leveraging relationships;
  • Failing to enlist allies;
  • Putting a job before a career plan;
  • Demanding perfection; and
  • Placing too much value on the desire to please.

All of these topics are worth considering in formulating a career plan. All of them can stand in the way of career advancement, and all of them can be painful to address. But you have to do it because no one is going to do it for you. Although a really effective mentor can help you think through some of these issues, you have to do the heavy lifting.

But there is another challenge that is so critical that it makes some of the others pale by comparison because it is so hard to overcome. My friend Andie Kramer and her husband and co-author Al Harris, two lawyers in Chicago, have addressed this problem in their book Breaking Through Bias. In that book and in their blogs at, they discuss how women seeking to advance in traditionally male fields, especially, face two particular types of biases, negative bias and agentic bias.

Negative bias for women derives from traditional feminine stereotypes that a woman is or should be “communal,” meaning warm, caring and gentle. Such women are seen as pleasant but unsuited for jobs requiring competence, competitiveness and authority.

Even more important, if a woman violates those traditional female stereotypes and behaves with authority, competence and independence, she is likely to be seen as aggressive, abrasive and bossy. And we all know what other “B word” will be ascribed to her then. This is called agentic bias and it comes with some harsh realities.

Andie and Al call dealing with these biases and their realities the Goldilocks Dilemma. Not too soft, but not too hard. Not too hot, but not too cold. And the double bind created by the intersection of negative and agentic biases is one you need to understand. Without understanding it, you will be unnecessarily handicapped in your efforts toward advancement and leadership.

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Webinar for Millennial Lawyers and Those Who Lead Them

Earlier today I presented a Webinar for Busy Lawyers. The format of this webinar series is 20 to 30 minutes of remarks plus Q and A. I was pleased to get so many questions at the end and to feel the enthusiasm from the moderator and the attendees. We could have taken more questions, but there just was not time. Those busy lawyers needed to get back to work!

The topic was “What Millennial Lawyers Want,” and the webinar was directed at millennial lawyers and the senior lawyers who lead them. It is always an interesting topic, and one that I love to present. My remarks began with research about millennials in general. How millennials were raised, what social issues affected them during those formative years, and what values they acquired early on is the only logical starting point for a discussion about millennial lawyers. After that, we moved on to the millennial lawyers in particular, and the generational divide that exists between them and more seasoned lawyers. I shared recent developments at law firms, where the issues are being effectively addressed, and other information about mentoring, effective communication, the special challenges for women lawyers, and the elements of a shared solution for the dilemma posed by the generational divide … and much, much more.

Here is a link so that you can enjoy listening to the webinar and seeing the Power Point on your own time:

Thank you to the webinar hosts and to all of you who submitted questions. It was a pleasure speaking to you!

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Millennial Lawyers Think They Work for Jerks: Are They Right?

I hear it all the time from our newest generation of lawyers. “I work for a jerk.” “I can’t please my supervisor with ANYTHING I do.” “Everything has to be PERFECT. Nothing else matters,” and “This guy thrives on my weaknesses and failures.”

According to a recent article, there are some tell-tale signs that, indeed, your boss may be a jerk. A brilliant jerk at that, but, nonetheless, a certifiable jerk.

So what does it take for a hardworking and dedicated boss to become a jerk? Here is how it is explained in the article:

A brilliant but abrasive leader is extremely talented but is driven to gain recognition above all else. They are exceptionally intelligent, but they use that intelligence for their own professional benefit rather than in the best interest of the company. … They are blinded to the costs their behavior has for individuals, teams, and the organization as a whole. They can destroy people’s self-confidence and inflict serious, lasting damage on their company. This toxic environment erodes morale and causes turnover to spike.

Pretty harsh but probably well-deserved. Even though it may be difficult to be a manager — and I know from personal experience that it is — that is no excuse for the kind of self-centered and destructive behavior described above. And that kind of behavior needs to be called out and avoided at all costs.

So beware of these bad managers. Look for the following characteristics:

  • Lack of empathy;
  • Volatile and manipulative behavior;
  • Perfectionism, including setting unrealistic standards and deadlines for themselves and others;
  • Difficulty with personal relationships, including low emotional IQs and trouble dealing with individual weaknesses; and
  • Fear of failure and belief that their leadership is always being challenged and judged by the failures of their direct reports.

And commit the following words to memory:

Abrasive leaders can be incredibly charismatic, especially to clients. Due to their razor-sharp intelligence, they have strong powers of persuasion. But they also create a culture of fear that robs employees of their voice and deadens creativity.

Don’t be robbed. Leaders with these kinds of negative characteristics do not change. But you can. You can change departments or change employers. Anything less is self torture.

And you deserve more.

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Webinar On and For Millennial Lawyers

On November 18, it will be my pleasure to present a webinar on and for millennial lawyers in cooperation with Webinars for Busy Lawyers. Here is a registration link for this FREE webinar: 

The 20-minute program will include discussion of the following topics:

  • Defining the millennial generation and how the millennial generation affects the workplace now and in the future;
  • The societal influencers that helped shape millennials and millennial lawyers and affected their values;
  • The similarity between the values of millennial lawyers and the values of lawyers of the Greatest Generation; 
  • What millennial lawyers want in the workplace; 
  • How law firms needs to change to retain young talent and protect succession plans; and
  • How millennial lawyers need to respond to be successful in private practice.

Many of these topics are covered in my book, What Millennial Lawyers Want: A Bridge from the Past to the Future of Law Practice (Wolters Kluwer/Aspen Publishers, 2018). If you can’t find time to read the book, here is your chance for an abbreviated version, tailor made for busy lawyers.

If you are a millennial lawyer, this information is for you. If you supervise/manage millennial lawyers, this information is also for you and critical to the future of law practice.

I hope you will join us on November 18, and I look forward to taking your questions during the Q and A.

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How the Pandemic Has Changed Us

Practicing law — particularly for women with family care taking responsibilities — has always been challenging. I have personal experience with practicing law while raising children and also caring for the needs of an aging parent, and it can be exhausting.

And now the pandemic has put another weighty layer on these challenges. How all lawyers, men and women alike, deal with this will define them in ways that are likely to create career paths they might not have anticipated prior to the pandemic.

The weighty responsibilities of virtual practice, including the need to carve out private spaces to return client phone calls and participate in Zoom sessions, and the responsibilities of home schooling to support virtual learning cannot, it seems, fail to be a constant reminder that our profession is designed for 24/7 delivery of services and for people without other pressing commitments. Fax machines, Blackberries and then iphones started it all, and now availability all the time has become an accepted aspect of practice.

The costs of this kind of availability should be of concern to all of us. Although these costs traditionally have been a subject of discussion between colleagues around proverbial water coolers, these realities are now presenting themselves as particularly poignant and are teeing up a recognition of the importance of addressing the workaholic aspect of our profession and coming up with realistic solutions.

Of particular importance to me is the tension between the need for diversity in the legal profession, which promotes the retention and advancement of women lawyers, and what is sometimes considered to be a related reduction of profitability. In other words, Susan at the office and Susan at home, responding to the needs of family, often are perceived to be in conflict.

In the past, it was easier to separate Susan at the office from Susan at home. But, now, while Susan is in isolation at home, she now lives in her office. She could easily view herself as under a microscope with the requirement to be perfect at being both a lawyer and a mother and, for some, a perfect daughter caring for elder parents under that same roof.

It takes a strong woman lawyer to keep from doubting herself and experiencing a diminution of self worth under these circumstances. And that is a slippery slope.

How do we prevent that? How do we bring greater humanization to the practice of law to avoid such destructive ends? In response, I could address, yet again, the kinds of professional behavior that I would like to see promoted in impersonal Big Law practices, especially, around the country. But I want to think bigger here.

I want us to contemplate the very essence of current professional practices and demands of law firms and what the pandemic has taught us. For example, we have learned that we do not have to be present in professional offices for twelve to fifteen hours a day to deliver excellent legal services.

We have learned that hearing the voices of children in the background during a business call is a mere recognition of the reality that lawyers need to be present in the lives of their children. We have learned that looking at a computer-driven device 24/7 is not good for our mental health.

We have learned that receiving e-mails in the wee hours of the night are very disruptive, and we try not to do it to others. We even have learned that seeing the smiles on the faces of those we love on a more regular and consistent basis makes our hearts sing.

The pandemic has underscored these issues, but it did not cause them. The duality and resulting tension that we are experiencing during COVID-19 is, in reality, nothing more than an extension of age-old habits, and the real culprit is the manner in which we have allowed our profession to run roughshod over our personal lives.

There is a reason why people, even lawyers, in other cultures are encouraged to demonstrate greater respect for their family lives and to take month-long vacations to enrich family experiences. It is something we need to think about as we pull out of the pandemic in the coming year and return to practice as usual — OR NOT. I am hoping for NOT.

As we contemplate the financial benefits of working remotely related to the questionable need for expensive brick and mortar practices, let us also contemplate the well-being issues that have become more clear to all of us during isolation during a pandemic.

We owe that to ourselves, to our families, and to the future of our profession.

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Beware of Political Discussion in the Office

It is the height of the political season, and you may be a person who feels the need to share your political views in the office. But, don’t listen to Nike on this one. No. No. No. Halt. Desist. Freeze. Just don’t do it.

This is especially good advice after the debacle of the first presidential debate last week. Whatever side you were on, it is no exaggeration to say that it was a debacle. It was a shipwreck. It was a dumpster fire. If you watched all 90 minutes of it, you probably felt as brain dead as I did afterward. But you may want to stifle yourself and keep your thoughts to yourself in the office setting. Here’s why.

It can be very risky discussing politics with colleagues. Although you may think you know how they trend on the political spectrum, you should err on the side of caution. Even if their opinions may be similar to yours, similar and the same can be light years apart.

When I was growing up in a small town in the Midwest, my family had a rule. You don’t discuss politics and religion outside the nuclear family. Even inside the nuclear family it could get very interesting and even a little ugly because my parents were educated and opinionated people who did not always agree. I think that they cancelled each other’s votes out on a regular basis, and don’t get me started on religion. My Mom was a devoted church goer, and my Dad was counsel to the church board and taught Sunday School. But he took his kids hiking and bird watching during many a church service ‘cuz I’m pretty sure he was an agnostic!

A recent article by Joel Patterson, a ForbesBook author, entitled “How To Prevent Political Discussions From Polarizing Your Workplace” suggests the following — with a little twist on those themes from yours truly.

Remember the Core Values of your Workplace. In a law firm, those core values should include respect for others and also for their opinions. If that is your guide star for any political discussions you think you must have, you may survive without major interpersonal upheavals. But, it is still risky. Once you introduce the subject, you may have to pivot and dodge when the road gets bumpy. Some people find that very hard.

Be Aware That You Will Be Judged By Your Behavior. If you disrupt the workplace with your strong opinions, you will be judged. Take that to the bank. Any time you make others feel uncomfortable, they will judge you. Even if some of your colleagues agree with your opinions, those same colleagues will judge you for the disruption. It is a no-win situation.

Practice the Fine Art of De-escalation. Let’s assume that you have taken the leap into the unknown and are in a full-blown workplace discussion of politics AND that it gets heated and a bit out of control. How you handle yourself at that point could be very important to your professional future. All eyes will be on you. Will you be cool and agree to disagree? Or will you pour gasoline on the flames? Hard to know until you are in the thick of it. Again, very risky.

If you are not convinced by now that “Just don’t do it” is the right approach to political discussions in the workplace, I can’t help you. You are helpless and on your own.

I just hope you make it through to the end of the year — because that may be how long it takes to sort out the mess we are in right now.

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Words of Wisdom

I read a quote from a woman judge recently, and it lines up so well with the advice that I give to young lawyers, both male and female. In the words of Patricia Brown Holmes, former Cook County, Illinois Judge:

Be like Nike and just do it — don’t let anything get in your way.

Of course, you must first go to law school and get the best grades possible — study hard and stay on top of every subject. Then get a job doing what you like.

We are always most successful when we are happy. So have fun as a lawyer. Learn. Explore. Watch. Soak it all in. Network with other lawyers so you develop and build relationships and references. Find judicial mentors. Learn their path as you develop your own.

Then, when the time is right and you have developed the skills, wisdom, judgment, confidence and support — make your move. If it does not happen, try again and again until you make it.

Great advice. Do what you like. Your work does not have to be your passion, but you need to enjoy your work.

Passion is not the same as enjoyment. People have passion for their families. People have passion for their hobbies, their avocations, and their artistic pursuits. People even have passion for their pets. But when people have passion for their work, it usually means that they are ignoring families, things, and pursuits that could expand their lives and make those lives particularly pleasurable.

Workaholics may believe that they have passion for their work, but, too often, they leave trails of lost opportunities in marriages and families behind them. You do not want to be one of them.

My professional experience lines up with this approach. I loved my work as a trial lawyer until I had a family. After that, my priorities changed. I put less emphasis on upward mobility and more emphasis on the quality of my work. I gave up partnership to be able to work part-time and meet the needs of my family. I ultimately gave up private practice and chose public service for the same reasons. And I never looked back or regretted my choices. Eventually, when my children were older and more self-sufficient, I returned to private practice as a partner.

Many women do not have to make those tough choices in today’s private law firms. Part-time lawyers can make partner today. There is far more flexibility in schedules to allow for family time and practice time. But, it may not be enough. Each lawyer has a unique view of job satisfaction, and it is all very personal.

So, be scrutinizing of your work opportunities. Find what you enjoy doing, and do it. Do not settle because you have been in a job for a long time and do not know how to leave. Don’t settle because you do not want to admit defeat. Don’t settle because you are afraid of the way others will perceive you. Figure it out. You will look back years later and be very satisfied with your decision. And you will have taken your best shot at happiness in your work.

It takes bravery and confidence to make tough decisions. But if you want it bad enough, you will reach deep down to pull out those attributes and live up to the promise that you should have made to yourself: Do not let you stand in the way of your happiness.

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Work-Life Balance and Quality of Life

This is the last in a series of blogs based on information gleaned from a Women in Law Empowerment Forum (WILEF) virtual meeting presented by the WILEF Chicago Young Lawyers Committee to address impacts on women lawyers of practice during the pandemic.  The first installment, published on August 5, 2020, addressed the subject of setting boundaries, the second installment, published on August 20th addressed privacy issues in a Zoom world, and the third installment addressed self-advocacy. Today’s topic is work-life balance and quality of life.

The profession of law has changed a lot since I started practicing more than 40 years ago. Women’s affinity groups, flexible schedules, achieving partnerships on less than full schedules — these are all new developments that have made the profession better for women. There is a lot that has been accomplished, but there is still a long way to go before women and men have the same opportunities in our profession.

Today, some of the issues have changed. Although the challenges for women lawyers are still very much in the spotlight, issues affecting broader diverse populations are now front and center as well. Addressing these issues responsibly takes time — time that affects the balance that is difficult for women in the law to achieve, especially those women with family and children care taking responsibilities. For every hour spent in committee meetings, practitioners have to find another hour in the day to work on client matters.

And clients also have become involved, too. Some clients are very proactive about how matters are staffed and are demanding more and more transparency on issues related to diversity. Clients scrutinize bills to see how the team actually functions and demand that diverse lawyers, who are assigned to the matter, actually work on the matter and are not just window dressing to secure the representation.

All of these varied responsibilities make it hard for lawyers to balance work life with home life. Some of the panelists described themselves as overwhelmed and in need of managers, who understood their need for boundaries and their aversion to false deadlines. They described the importance of learning to prioritize to meet even the true deadlines, and how much harder it has been during COVID-19 with kids at home and spouses working out of the same space. Some of these women found themselves turning to lawyer assistance programs, behavior therapy, and even medication to keep them in the game. One of them left practice. These measures all may seem extreme, but they are realistic. The law is a tough taskmaster.

The panelists all agreed that you have to do what is right for YOU. Law practice is not for everyone, and it may not be for you. Be honest about it, explore alternatives, and get the help you need.

Careers can be very long these days. Choose well, and remember that you don’t always get it right the first time. Be true to yourself, and let happiness be your goal.

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