What is Success for Young Women Lawyers?

Success has been on my mind a lot recently.  As so many of you know, the February bar exam results came out recently in jurisdictions across the country.  It is such an intimidating process to go on-line to get the good or bad news, but, in addition, the on-line messages are often very insensitive and lacking.  Frankly, I find some of them offensive.

Fortunately, jurisdictions phrase the results differently because it would be unfortunate for all jurisdictions to parrot one in particular that informs those who did not pass that they have been “unsuccessful.” Oh, please, can’t they do better than that?  People should not be labeled as “unsuccessful” because they did not pass a test that can only be described as a “crap shoot” by many of those who have taken it.  I took two bar exams and passed both, and I could not have predicted the results of either when I walked out the door at the end of the exam.  So, I would rather see the message be something like, “We are sorry to inform you that you have not passed the bar exam.”  Let’s just leave out the reference to being “unsuccessful” altogether.   Someone who fails to pass a bar exam is hardly unsuccessful as a general description, and yet that is the way too many young people will receive that message.

So, that is what got me started on my tirade, but it led to a broader consideration of what success really is.  Fortunately, the definition of success in business and in life is changing, but it still has a long way to go to make people in general—and many women lawyers in particular—feel good about their professional accomplishments.   I have been talking about this since I launched the Best Friends at the Bar project six years ago, and I am happy to hear more people talking about it today.

I hope that you are familiar with what I call Personal Definitions of Success that are tailored to you and your individual circumstances and that I write about in my books.  To refresh your memory, if you have significant responsibilities for home and family in your personal life, you are not likely to succeed within the same definition of success as the young lawyer seated next to you, who does not have those responsibilities and can devote as much time to career as he or she desires.  It is all time-related and a simple exercise in math.  Time is finite, and, for some of you, with significant responsibilities for home and children, there is just not enough of it to go around.

The retention rates for women lawyers are very low, and those retention rates can be traced directly to how women feel about their careers.  If they feel good about their careers, they stay in.  If they feel bad about their careers, there is not much to hold them to the profession.  So, the logical solution is to find a way of making more young women lawyers feel good about their careers.  To do that, we have to stop defining success for women with family responsibilities the same way we define success for men and women without those same levels of responsibility in their personal lives—at least for the periods of time when women are particularly career challenged with the responsibilities of home and family.

I know that flies in the face of the teachings of the Women’s Liberation Movement and some of the thought leaders of today like Sheryl Sandberg, the Facebook executive who wants you all to “lean in” to your careers like men, but I also know that it is the only practical way to keep more women in the profession. To do that, we will have to encourage women, who are particularly challenged juggling professional and personal lives, to define their success in terms of flexible work schedules, reduced hours, sole practice, alternative practice settings (like those I profile in Best Friends at the Bar:  The New Balance for Today’s Woman Lawyer)  and the many other variations that will help them survive the most difficult care-taking years, stay in the profession in one way or another, and be ready to jump back into a full-time schedule once the responsibilities of their personal lives are redefined as the children get older and become more independent.

That does not mean that we do not need some women to stay on the upwardly mobile full-time career path with a direct trajectory to the corner office or the corporate C-suite.  Of course we do.  We want them to be on that path and to get to the top of leadership and management so that women’s abilities will be recognized and appreciated and so that they can help develop policies that will assure options for women lawyers who need them.   We hope that those more upwardly mobile women will have the perfect mates, the perfect nannies and the perfect law firms and many, many resources to allow them to do just that.  I am all in favor of it, and I devote a lot of time in my books addressing how these women can overcome the challenges of a male-dominated profession to help them accomplish those goals.  But, as much as we applaud the women who are able to stay on uninterrupted career paths, we know that it does not work for all women.

So, that is what I talk about in my books and in my speeches and whenever anyone will listen to me.  I am a pragmatist, and I do not rest on ceremony or useless principles.  I want as many of you to succeed as possible.  It is as simple as that.

Others think it is simple, too.  Recently, I have spoken to two male lawyers who have founded serious flexible-time programs with the specific objective of keeping women lawyers in the profession and not losing them to the talent bleed that results from the work-life challenge that has such a great effect on women and their careers.  One of them, Benjamin Lieber, left Big Law to found The Potomac Law Group, as detailed in a Washington Post article earlier this year.  Ben and I will be having lunch soon to discuss the project, and I can’t wait to hear all about it.  Another program is in place at Gallagher & Kennedy in Phoenix where the efforts there are headed up by Scott Henderson.  Mr. Henderson is a fan of Best Friends at the Bar, and contacted me to fill me in on the project, which is not limited to women but which is helping so many women at that firm survive the challenging work-life years and continue to feel successful.

Bravo for these efforts and others like them.  But, back to the definition of success.  What are other people saying about it?  Stay tuned for my next blog to find out!





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