Women in the Law: A Survival Guide

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Yes, women have made great strides in the legal profession, and, yes, serious problems remain. The bar is still dominated by men (58% of associates and staff attorneys at U.S. firms are male). Women remain badly underrepresented in positions of leadership (just 16% of partners at major law firms are women). And while women have just as many professional demands to shoulder as men do, it is still the case that they handle most of the child rearing, housekeeping, and other domestic duties.

Carping about these problems is natural enough — and healthy to a point. Ultimately, though, women want solutions. To help, JD Jungle asked veteran woman lawyers to share their secrets of career success. None of the proposals is a panacea (the problems woman lawyers face are complex, and there's no such thing as a quick fix), and not every piece of advice will appeal to everyone (some of the ideas flat-out contradict one another). But the goal here isn't to offer a prescription. It's to arm women with a range of options to consider as they seek to negotiate what remains, for now at least, an uneven playing field. Needless to say, every edge counts.

1. Know what you're getting into.
As a woman, it's important to recognize right away that you'll face unique challenges, says Barbara Robinson, the first woman to become a partner at New York's Debevoise & Plimpton and the only woman to have served as president of the New York City bar association. It may sound obvious, says Robinson, but if you simply expect to face obstacles, you'll be less likely to be thrown by them. "It's not great to start out feeling like a victim or with a chip on your shoulder," she says. "But you do want to take charge of your life. Just don't be pugnacious about it; be constructive. And have a sense of humor."

2. Organize.
Whatever you set out to achieve, you'll be more likely to accomplish it if you join forces with other women. "There are still too many things in common and too many barriers to overcome to give up the help of one another," says Madge Thorsen, a partner at Minneapolis's Kelly & Berens and the first woman president of the University of Minnesota's Minnesota Law Review. Start or join a women's committee at your firm. You don't have to run the group like a military unit, but set goals and seek to attain them. "It's emotionally helpful to talk about issues and problems," says Thorsen. "But it's more fulfilling to focus on innovations that produce results." Don't limit your group to like-minded women at your own firm. Include guest speakers-women from other law firms or from businesses recognized as excellent places for women to work. Invite leaders of women's business organizations or other women's groups to speak. Meet with the managing partner of a firm that's made positive changes for women. And don't exclude the men at your firm-they can be a great resource and help you in your efforts. "If what women need are ways to succeed and develop," says Thorsen, "they'll need to tap into different groups of people who can help make this happen."

3. Seek mentors.
One of the best ways to get where you want to go in your career is to partner with the women who have gone before you, says Angela Bradstreet, a partner at San Francisco's Carroll, Burdick & McDonough and a former president of the California Women Lawyers association. Look around and identify people whose careers you admire. Want to be an M&A lawyer doing billion-dollar deals? Seek out someone who does just that. Want to defend indigent women pro bono? Ditto. If you develop a mentor-mentee relationship through the regular course of your work, terrific. If not, don't be afraid to approach someone. Tell her that you admire her work and are interested in learning from her, then offer to help, say, research a case she's working on. Having a mentor who takes you to lunch to chat about your career development is fine, but having a mentor who can teach you concrete lawyering skills is better, says Bradstreet. "Women need women who can teach them to do the work, as well as the tools of rainmaking," she says. If a mentor relationship isn't working out, look for someone else. For that matter, don't be afraid to have multiple mentors. Again, consider looking outside the firm. And keep in mind that your mentor doesn't even have to be an attorney: Need help with presentation skills? Approach a communications pro who's friends with your mother. In the end, what you're trying to assemble is your own personal board of advisers.

4. Make change.
Even at relatively progressive firms, change comes slowly. Be prepared to fight for what you want no matter what obstacles you encounter, says Cynthia Calvert, an employment lawyer and a co-director of the Washington, D.C.-based Project for Attorney Retention. What are the most effective ways to make change? First, choose your priorities. No one can do 10 things at once, so pick one or two primary issues and focus on those. Let's say your firm doesn't have a flexible work policy and you want to make that a top priority. Above all else, you'll have to present management with a compelling business reason for the firm to adopt such a policy. "It's a weak position to start out from your own self-interest," says Calvert. "Instead, focus on management's interests-business issues and the bottom line." Present statistics on what attrition costs the firm per lawyer. Show how reducing attrition saves money, keeps clients happy, and attracts better talent. Get hold of model policies that are known to work and share them with management. Ask colleagues at other firms to share their policies or contact the American Bar Association's Commission on Women in the Profession and the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) for relevant resources. Whatever issues you choose to pursue, involve people from various levels of the firm-especially decision makers-as soon as you can. The more people you bring into the loop, and the faster you bring them in, the more apt you'll be to build consensus. Remember, says Calvert: "A law firm is a partnership, and you'll need consensus to help you implement a new policy. It'll get put into practice that much faster if you have buy-in."

5. Be a great lawyer.
One of the best things you can do to bring about change is to be a first-rate attorney, says Audrey Rohan, a corporate partner at New York's Loeb & Loeb. "Law firms value talent, and if you can get the work done and make clients happy, you can often find ways to have more flexibility," she says. Do all the things that make an attorney stand out: Take on assignments eagerly, exceed partners' and clients' expectations, be pleasant to work with, log the long hours, and so on. Then be sure you're perceived as a star. "Your colleagues and clients have to see you in action, because women often aren't accepted at face value the way men are," says Rohan.

6. Try a woman-friendly firm.
For some women, it's simply too demanding to reform an institution and work 100 hours per week. Fortunately, there are firms that have already established themselves as woman-friendly. To assess a firm for yourself, says Sheryl Willert, a lawyer at Seattle's Williams, Kastner & Gibbs and the first woman president of the Defense Research Institute, a national association of lawyers involved in civil litigation defense, find out how many woman attorneys the firm employs-both overall and in leadership positions. (NALP's Directory of Legal Employers gives demographic information for each of the firms listed. NALP also compiles annual statistics on women and attorneys of color at law firms; and Vault's annual ranking of the top 100 law firms nationally includes a breakout list of the top three firms for women.) Ask if the firm has specific programs to recruit, train, and develop woman lawyers. Find out what flexible work policies the firm offers. Speak to woman lawyers who work at the firm and ask them what they like-and don't like-about it. "In the past two years these questions have come up more and more in interviews, and students want to meet with women associates and partners," says Joanne DeZego, the manager of legal recruiting at Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy in New York. "Women-and men-are thinking more long-term about their careers and where they want to be. The lifestyle a firm offers them is a big deal today." That said, there's a right way and a wrong way to ask. Don't be accusatory and put lawyers on the defensive, says DeZego. Be inquisitive, but professional. Also, DeZego advises, even if you're in your twenties with no children and willing to devote yourself to work now, there might be a time in the future when taking advantage of a maternity or part-time policy will be important to you. So don't be shortsighted.

7. Consider an all-woman firm.
A woman-friendly firm not good enough for you? How about an all-woman or woman-owned firm? A growing number of such shops is cropping up around the country. Mostly boutique firms, they cover all areas of the law, from white-collar crime and civil litigation to estate planning and dispute resolution. "I've practiced with men partners in the past for many years, and some of the issues that arise in situations where a partnership is predominantly male just don't arise at all-women firms," says Renée Livingston, a founder of Livingston Tate, an all-woman law firm in Walnut Creek, California, specializing in civil torts. If a woman needs to come in late or work from home because a child is sick, for example, woman partners are often more understanding and more willing to allow for flexible schedules. All-woman firms also tend to be less cutthroat, says Livingston, and women don't have to prove themselves to men. And because most all-woman firms are small, lawyers often get more responsibility and more training faster than they would at a large firm. Of course, being in an all-woman law firm has its drawbacks too. Some founders of all-woman firms say they had less credibility at the beginning with vendors such as banks and often had to rely on a women's network to get business done. It's also important to remember that working for a women's firm means working for a small firm-no big-firm salary or prestige. A good place to begin researching women's firms is in the National Association of Women Lawyers' National Directory of Women-Owned Law Firms and Women Lawyers. As you shop for a firm, says Livingston, weigh quality as much as gender. "That my partner was a woman was not why I went into business with her," says Livingston. "She was an excellent lawyer. That she is a woman is a positive."

8. Go in-house.
If you decide the megahours environment of law firm work just isn't right for you, consider becoming an in-house attorney. The work is far from easy, but it can be less intense, says Gina DeConcini, tax director at the Minneapolis accounting firm Lurie Besikof Lapidus & Company and a former senior manager at the Minneapolis office of Deloitte & Touche. Many companies, especially large, high-profile firms, are more progressive than many law firms in terms of hiring women, and they often have well-defined pro-woman employment policies in place. Going in-house can also mean working for a company whose business-accounting, genetic engineering, or whatever-you find interesting, and it can give you an opportunity to develop a specialty (DeConcini graduated from law school with a focus on tax law and joined Deloitte right after that). Working for a large company has particular benefits, says DeConcini: Because she started her career as the mother of young twins, DeConcini needed flexibility. "I had the perception that if I went to a smaller environment, I'd be more missed at times when I couldn't be in the office," she says.

9. Consider 'women's work'.
For some women, working on so-called women's issues provides a unique sense of career fulfillment. "When I first started to work on women's issues, that was like a lightbulb for me," says Lara Stemple, the executive director of Stop Prisoner Rape, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization that works to end sexual violence in jails. "I felt that the lack of equality for women was so egregious in so many places that you could have a meaningful career working on just that." Some women object to the term women's work because, they say, it pigeonholes women. But Stemple says that working on issues germane to women can be singularly satisfying. "The injustices are pretty severe, and there are clear victories to be won." Women's work can extend from issues of domestic violence to political rights to international labor issues. In addition to working at Stop Prisoner Rape, for example, Stemple has worked at nonprofits such as the Center for Reproductive Rights in New York and the Pacific Institute for Women's Health in Los Angeles. The jobs offered a wide range of responsibilities, from lobbying UN delegates on an AIDS resolution to taking part in Senate Judiciary Committee hearings. In her first job, as a fellow at the Center for Reproductive Rights, says Stemple, "I worked on everything from AIDS in Africa to the global gag rule. It was hugely varied." Jobs that directly have an impact on women aren't easy to find, and they rarely pay as well as big law firm jobs (as a compromise, some women do woman- oriented pro bono work at a firm). But working for a small nonprofit also offers opportunities for immediate responsibility and leadership that larger law firms don't typically provide. At Stop Prisoner Rape, Stemple sets the group's agenda, manages the staff, raises funds, and oversees the publicity work. In other words, she runs the show. At the end of the day, though, what makes the work attractive to Stemple is this: "You're making a difference."

10. Put work first.
For some women, the way to handle "the woman problem" is, in a sense, not to. Under this view, law firms are what they are, and the best way to thrive at one is simply to meet its demands. The billable hour and client service are king at big firms, and that's not going to change, says Erica Steinberger, a partner at the New York office of Latham & Watkins. Because of this, you'll have to work tremendously hard. If that means making sacrifices in other areas of your life, says Steinberger, that may be a price you have to pay. For example, she says: "The more you can focus the first few years on learning, the better off you'll be. Understand that if you can put off having a family until after you're a partner, it might be easier." Whether you choose to place work above other priorities, of course, is up to you, but the point is, it's an option. Men have never had to apologize for making their careers their number-one pursuit, says Steinberger. "If you're prepared to live the lifestyle and basically make work the priority for a couple of years, you shouldn't have to either."

11. Put work second.
Other women, meanwhile, choose not to put work first. After Stephanie Martz, a part-time senior associate in the Washington, D.C., office of Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw, gave birth to her son, Kyle, in September 2001, her priorities shifted. "Work has never been my animating passion, although there is a lot I like about working in a law firm," she says. Remember: The partnership track isn't the only option; many firms now have "counsel" positions or two-tier partnership levels that offer flexibility in balancing work and personal life. Martz, for example, returned to work after four-plus months' maternity leave (she worked in the Washington, D.C., office of Baker Botts at the time) and decided to look for a part-time arrangement at a firm with a greater commitment to part-time schedules. Mayer, Brown fit the bill. She also shifted her practice focus from trial litigation to appellate brief writing, which she considered more manageable. "I realize there will be times when work will be a top priority, but on balance, my family comes first," she says. And ramping down doesn't have to mean trading in job satisfaction. "I enjoy what I'm doing, and I have the respect of my colleagues and clients," says Martz. "That's what's important to me." Eventually, Martz hopes to make partner or counsel. "But I'm not going to set arbitrary deadlines for achieving that," she says.

12. Give yourself a break.
Finally, recognize that there's no perfect career solution. Life is full of choices, each of which entails sacrifice. You want to be a partner someday? You may have to push for more high-profile assignments for woman lawyers and forfeit something in your personal life. Want to start a family and not work killer hours? You may have to fight to establish part-time, flex-time, or job-sharing opportunities at your firm-or change jobs. Whatever you choose to do, says Mary Cranston, the chairperson at San Francisco- and New York-based Pillsbury Winthrop, "you'll always feel that you're neglecting one thing or another in your life." Don't use that as an excuse to stay in a bad situation. If you're unhappy, make changes. But don't beat yourself up if your life isn't 100% picture-perfect either. "The key is to have some perspective and not to take anything too seriously," says Cranston. Trying to do it all can be a trap for women. Instead, she says, "have some flexibility of mind, then decide what's most important to you and do those things."

Additional reporting by Renee Kaplan.

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