Women in Law: Being Strategic about Career Success

By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

Earlier this week, Working Mother Media hosted a panel on key factors for women’s advancement in law. The panel, hosted by Deborah Epstein Henry, Founder and President of Flex-Time Lawyers, and author of Law and Reorder: Legal Industry Solutions for Restructure, Retention, Promotion & Work/Life Balance, discussed opportunities for women to take charge of their career path.

The speakers included Susan L. Lees, Executive Vice President and General Counsel of Allstate Insurance Co., Andra Shapiro, Executive Vice President Business Affairs & General Counsel, Nickelodeon / Viacom Media Network, Lewis Steverson, Senior Vice President, General Counsel and Secretary to the Board, Motorola Solutions, Inc., and Julie Sweet, General Counsel, Secretary and Chief Compliance Officer, Accenture.

Henry remarked that the panel was designed to tackle the strategic side of career advancement that many women find challenging. “All we think is that we have to be good, that we’ve done the work – we’re worker bees – and that we don’t need the recognition.”

The reality couldn’t be farther from the truth though, she continued. In a competitive job market, being a good worker is a prerequisite for success. But effectively leveraging that success for advancement is what propels you to the top.

Key Factors for Advancement

Seek Sponsorship. One of the first topics the panelists discussed was the importance of gaining sponsorship. Sweet, who spent the first 17 years of her career at a high profile law firm, explained that as a junior attorney, she worked hard to get the attention of senior partners. She explained that often it just started with a knock on their door, to ask how they became successful – after all, she said with a laugh, people love to talk about themselves.

For example, Sweet continued, “One person was a well-known speaker – he felt it was an important way to raise your profile. I said I’d be happy to help him research and prepare for talks.” She also offered to substitute for him if he couldn’t make it to an engagement.

“That’s seeking a sponsor – it’s not saying ‘give me clients.’ …It’s about offering value and asking for something in return as well,” she explained.

Communicate Your Strategy. Lees discussed how she has noticed that sometimes women aren’t perceived as strategic leaders. Instead they are viewed as more tactical. This is a matter of communication, she explained. “I don’t think it’s that women aren’t strategic. I think women jump to the task and don’t articulate their vision because they know what it is [and don’t think they have to share it].”

That opens the door for other people to share their vision instead, she explained. “I always encourage people to make sure you are able to paint a picture to help their team understand where they are headed before getting into the details.”

Truly Connect. “I hate networking,” Shapiro said. “I despise the word. I hate the events. I’m really bad at it so I avoid it.”

“I really like connections, though,” she continued. Connecting with the right people is critical for advancement, especially in the legal profession, which is fueled by relationships.

“I prefer making connections in smaller groups rather than at events,” she explained. That could mean meeting for breakfast or lunch, or a quick coffee. “Four o’clock coffees are very popular in my office,” Shapiro remarked. It could also mean asking a colleague or contact to introduce you to someone over lunch.

Focus on Your Strengths. Finally, Steverson talked about playing to your strengths. He explained that growing up with six sisters and now as a father to two teenaged girls, he’s has noticed a clear difference in the way women and men think about themselves. “Women are remarkably self-aware. Men are not. They just aren’t,” he said. That leads some men to become arrogant, he added.

“Women know exactly what their strengths and weaknesses are, and they can see opportunities without being arrogant about them. If you utilize that self awareness and bring that as part of your tool kit, it will help you be successful,” he said.

Why Firms Should Support Women

Carol Evans, the president of Working Mother Media, opened the event with a discussion around why top firms have an increased focus on helping their female attorneys advance.

According to Evans, many firms are beginning to feel pressure from their clients. “Our Best Companies look at a vast array of suppliers, vendors, and partners. They want to know if they’re doing strong work to support women.”

She continued, “They have talked to us about what they expect to see when they walk into a room – who’s sitting across from them at the table.”

The message was clear – law firms need to think about the business case around advancing and retaining women leaders, not just because they are highly educated and proficient, but companies are looking for diverse legal teams to advise them. The percentage of women at a firm is becoming a selling point for top companies – and that should be compelling to people in the business of law.