Women lawyers on average contribute several hundred nonbillable hours each year to their firms. Unfortunately, not all of those hours are wisely spent—especially if the lawyer’s goal is to advance to firm management. Learning how to identify and pursue true leadership opportunities—and avoid dead-end roles—is critical for women lawyers who want to attain management positions. When you are asked to serve on a firm committee, for example, you need to consider whether your responsibilities on that particular committee could convert into a leadership role. If there’s no strategic benefit in terms of gaining leadership experience, look elsewhere. Consider these factors before agreeing to join a committee to help ensure you spend your time strategically.
► Role Do you concur with the committee’s mission? How will your role on the committee align with your personal mandate? Can you change the job to better reflect your interests or maximize your knowledge and skills? Also, before you agree to assume the responsibilities inherent in the role, be certain that you can really commit the time required to fulfill those responsibilities.
► Goals What do you hope to achieve for yourself or your organization in doing this work? Will you tackle a new challenge, or positively impact the firm’s bottom line? Will you help to raise your firm’s profile or your personal profile? Establish some goals for yourself at the outset so you know what you can expect to achieve and so you can determine when you have accomplished those objectives. Also set intermediate goals to allow you to evaluate (and promote) your successes along the way.
► Likelihood of Success Can you actually succeed in achieving your goals and the committee’s mission? Or will you become the dumping ground for irresolvable issues? If the committee has been in place for years with little success, you may conclude that its mission isn’t likely to be accomplished, at least without a major push. Are you positioned to make independent decisions and implement change unilaterally? Determine what impediments might lay in the path to your success and whether you can possibly line up the support necessary to overcome them.
► Budget and Resources What administrative staff and other resources will be available to you? Will you do the heavy lifting by yourself? What contributions can you expect from your colleagues? It’s also important to find out what budget has been allocated to the initiative and what your spending authority is. Follow the money: A significant budget and dedicated resources imply commitment from firm management. A limited budget and lack of resources can limit your ability to get things done.
► Access With whom will you interact while serving on this committee? What doors will be opened? The chance to interact with the firm’s CFO or your department chair should make an opportunity more attractive. If instead you will be working primarily with junior associates, it may be an occasion to build a reputation as a good mentor—or you may have to find other means to promote yourself to management.
► Credit and Accolades What recognition will you receive for this work? If you expect to receive hours or other credit for your efforts, can you negotiate those terms before you accept the role? Assess how your successes will be communicated internally and externally and whether you will be raising your profile with the influential people within your firm. Also consider whether you can add the position to your resume or whether it can help in your business development and marketing efforts.
► Next Steps Where will you jump to from this platform? What will your exit strategy be once you have achieved your goals on this committee? When the role no longer challenges you, you should step aside so that you can focus your nonbillable efforts on different endeavors to develop deeper or new skills. Recognize when it’s time to move on and find your next opportunity.
Do not be reluctant to exercise self-interest in your efforts to assume a leadership role. While it is not realistic to expect that every task will translate into a chance to lead, you should seize the opportunity when it arises. Time is a valuable commodity in a law firm—and women lawyers in particular should strive to use it better to attain leadership positions.
Kathleen B. Patton is Director of Professional Development at Brown Rudnick LLP in Boston.