By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)
Last week, the New York City Bar Association hosted an intimate women in law career workshop with Ida Abbott, co-founder and Director of the Hastings Leadership Academy for Women at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, co-Chair of the Women in Law Empowerment Forum, and a lawyer development consultant.
Women in any career walk a fine line – between assertive and aggressive, collaborative and accommodating, bold… and the b-word. And in a relationship-focused field like law, these tensions become even more concentrated.
Abbott said, “I remember years ago, a lawyer referred to me as a dragon lady – and he didn’t mean it as a compliment. I took it that way anyway.” She continued, “Politics is not something you can ignore – it’s a process for reconciling competing interests. As a leader, you have to find ways to persuade people with different interests to do things they might not want to do.”
There are ways to gain the upper hand in a politically charged workplace – here are three pieces of advice Abbott recommended.
Build a Stronger Web of Relationships
“Even though everyone says we’re good at it, women don’t tend to build strong, strategic relationships,” Abbott said.
“I’ve heard many women say that they had a lot of support and coaching while they were associates, but once they became a partner they lost that support.” Once individuals are seen as competitors, those mentor relationships can dry up. But that needn’t be the case. Abbott said women need to work on building stronger sponsor relationships – strategic connections with influential individuals who will spend their political and social capital on your behalf.
She explained, “The better and stronger your web of relationships, the better information and the more options you have. You need to be more aware, alert, and able to make those connections.”
“Don’t forget about reciprocity. The whole world operates on this principle, but women don’t use it enough. Ask, ‘if I do this for you, can you do that for me?’ Be transparent about it,” she advised. “You – and they – need to know what you bring to the table.”
Take More Career Risks
“If you wait until you’re totally qualified, you won’t get the position,” Abbott said. “Firms look for someone who may not be totally qualified right now but is ready to grow into a role.”
She advised women to take more career risks, in seeking positions and projects that feel like a stretch. If you don’t, she said, “someone who’s a little noisier comes in and gets the attention – and you’ll be left out.”
“Don’t hold yourself back,” she continued. “Sometimes the ambition gets knocked out of you, so you need to be determined and resilient. It takes a lot.”
Back Up Your Brag
Many women are uncomfortable sharing successes for fear of being labeled arrogant. But there are definitely times when self-promotion is appropriate, and making sure others are aware of your successes is key to negotiating for raises and promotions.
“Keep track of all the good things you do all year long,” recommended Abbott. “Keep a file of favorable letters and emails, words of praise, and positive feedback. When the time comes to negotiate for your raise or promotion, you can point to them and say here’s why I deserve this.”
She continued, “When you have all the evidence you need, it’s not bragging, it’s stating facts. Plus you begin to realize you really did accomplish a lot, and deserve what you’re asking for.”