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For young women in the legal profession, the way to earn a leadership role can be vague. Many find too many unanswered questions or obstacles in their current status, or decide that they are not destined for a higher position after minor setbacks or mistakes.
At a recent American Bar Association discussion, “Learning to Lead: What Really Works for Women in Law,” experts encouraged women to believe in themselves and seek opportunities within and outside of their day job in order to become successful leaders.
Lacy Durham, senior tax consultant at Deloitte Tax LLP, advised future leaders to find their niche and focus on an area where they can shine. “It’s very critical as female leaders we understand and get to the core of what it is we like to do, we want to do and we do best. If you don’t find your passion, your leadership is going to be for naught,” she said. “It won’t be genuine, and eventually that will catch up with you.”
After hearing a real-life situation provided by a listener, experts offered advice on how to improve leadership abilities when not supported by a boss or in a hostile environment for promotion. Durham said she experienced these obstacles in her career firsthand.
“I quickly realized that the opportunities within the organization weren’t going to happen, so I sought leadership opportunities outside,” she admitted. “I went to the bar association. I got on the board of a couple of high-profile community organizations that aligned with my passion.”
Ultimately, these leadership roles led to Durham prove her abilities and acquire important allies that vouched for her potential.
As counsel for ExxonMobil, the third-largest company in the world by consolidated revenue, Gindi Eckel Vincent makes important decisions and administers critical legal discussions every day.
“Far before I was given law firm and company leadership assignments, I was a chair on committees. I was leading nonprofit and bar associations,” she said. “That’s what I did for years before I really had a corporate leadership persona.”
According to Vincent, women can begin flexing their leadership muscles at a nonprofit organization or bar association to stay on track. “At the times in my career when I had less supportive bosses, I went out and made new network connections by joining organizations and serving in leadership roles where I could get more engaged and get more visibility,” she said.
As the author of the ABA publication “Learning to Lead: What Really Works for Women in Law,” Vincent researched leadership extensively, interviewed leaders and reflected on her own experience to determine what strategies really work for women in practice.
For Carrie Hightman, executive vice president and chief legal officer of NiSource Inc., it is important for every aspiring leader to be self-aware yet humble, authentic and deliberate. With those goals, women can learn what not to do when in a difficult environment.
“Carefully observe leaders you come in contact with and learn from their examples, both good and bad,” Hightman said. “You’ll probably learn as much from your bad bosses as from your good ones.”
She encouraged women to take charge of their own career rather than letter their career simply “happen.” She said that by being strategic, future leaders can develop important skills to build a long-term plan toward success.
“Make the decision to lead every day, whether in good circumstances or bad,” Hightman concluded.
More resources provided at the event can be found online. The teleconference, “Learning to Lead: What Really Works for Women in Law,” was moderated by Margaret K. Masunaga, deputy corporation counsel for the County of Hawaii, and was sponsored by the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession and Young Lawyers Division.