Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law Roundtable: Helping Associates Climb the Cliffs of Insanity

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women's leadership

WASHINGTON, D.C. — At a recent gathering of six women in general counsel or senior in-house roles and six women who are law firm partners, the discussion quickly turned to the question of why more women associates are struggling to make partner or obtain leadership positions in law firms and the similar struggles women have breaking into the general counsel role.

The get-together, on April 26, was the second annual Roundtable Dinner in Washington, D.C. of the Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law (TWLL) initiative. The Roundtable Dinner program, started last year, offers several events around the country which serve as forums for open dialogue on women’s issues and challenges in the legal industry. I hosted the recent event along with Thomson Reuters’ Aparna Sthanam, a Client Manager.

One partner in attendance noted that often women don’t move up because they are not encouraged; and a general counsel added that after attending a women’s leadership conference that gave her permission to be herself and excel, she felt absolutely ready for the general counsel role. However, at each subsequent performance review she was provided another hoop to jump through or another skill to achieve. She pointed out that while she may not have been perfect for every aspect of the role, she was ready, and ended up changing organizations in order to find a general counsel role.

Indeed, another general counsel said that in her experience women often hesitate to apply for promotions until they feel “over-ready” while men seem to always think they are ready for every promotion.

“Everyone has to be the grinder to succeed… But no one teaches you how to sell your product.”

The group concluded that associates often have no knowledge of exactly what skills they need to develop to become equity partners or general counsel, or how they will be judged as fit or ready for that promotion. The women agreed that law school alone does not prepare lawyers to learn and master the “soft skills” prized for these top roles, concerning everything from business development to networking. Two women described how as young associates they were the quintessential “grinders”, working much longer hours than other associates, pulling 14-hour days, and refusing to ever leave the office before their partners. Often women don’t focus as much on the “minding” and “grinding” roles that are essential to attorney promotion to partner, they said. An in-house attorney concurred. “Everyone has to be the grinder to succeed,” she said. “But no one teaches you how to sell your product.”

A common theme that emerged at the Dinner was how valuable mentors could be to women looking to advance in the legal industry, whether those mentors are men or women. Several partners and GCs noted that beyond a recent study showing women attorneys in large law more concentrated in certain practice areas like immigration, labor and employment or family law, women are even less represented in the government contracts and white collar practices. Because the government contracts field has traditionally been dominated by white men or former military personnel, women attorneys often found themselves the only women in a room and with male mentors when they first entered practice. But the women found that the gender of your mentor is not that significant: “Find your mentors wherever they are.”

However, the women disagreed on whether a mentor is essential to success, with one general counsel arguing that women can succeed without mentors and must take responsibility for and control of their own careers; she noted she is teaching her own daughters they don’t need anyone else to achieve success.

The women found that the gender of your mentor is not that significant: “Find your mentors wherever they are.”

But another partner attending noted that while mentoring may not be the only way for a woman to reach leadership in the legal industry, it certainly can help. She compared law firm leaders watching associates climb the trek to partnership without help to the villains watching the Dread Pirate Roberts climb the monumentally steep Cliffs of Insanity in the classic film The Princess Bride. She explained that it often seems firm leadership stands at the top of a cliff, watching associates attempt to navigate the rocky terrain of partnership trek and comment on how likeable they find an associate and how much they wish he or she would succeed, but (unlike the villain in The Princess Bride trying to hasten his opponent’s ascent for a welcome challenge) only a few partners will throw down a rope or offer advice on surer footing to help associates climb up.

The partner also noted that she believes that associates finding sponsors is even more important than mentors: “Mentors can give you advice and be your sounding board, but sponsors (who often are not your mentors) have control and power, a seat at the table, and can help pave your way by vouching for you and putting themselves on the line.” Research has long established that all mentoring is not created equal and that sponsors can go beyond just giving feedback and advice to using their influence with senior executives to advocate for mentees and encouraging women to realize their readiness and apply for certain positions.

One of the final things the women talked about was ways in which women both in-house and on the law firm side could better collaborate. Sheila Harvey, global energy industry chair at Pillsbury, noted that the old law firm model is on its way out and the way to move forward is collaboration across corporations and law firms. Harvey noted that women often have very high collaboration skills and this would help with what another GC said she wants — personal investment from law firms to serve as a continued partner and help the company to meet its goals.

As a commitment, several women vowed to help less senior women at their firms to find productive mentorships to help them learn needed skills. Another vowed to find mentees who may not be the “shining stars” but ones struggling to find their way in their legal organizations or in another career path. One said she wanted to help both young women associates understand the value of business development and her own firm leadership to understand that a partner can provide value in ways other than just origination credit.