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Lessons Learned—and Shared—with Women in the Law

By Cheryl Rich Heisler
Woman working on her laptop

Woman working on her laptop

My business is helping lawyers in transition and I am certainly familiar with a litany of career “wrong-turns” taken by clients.  But I was just introduced to a most coherent list of the right things women lawyers should be doing to advance their careers.

As a legal career consultant who constantly promotes networking, I attended my annual Northwestern Law women’s alumnae luncheon earlier this week.  We meet on the 80th floor of a lovely club in Chicago, with great food, great service and spectacular lake views.  But when our speaker opened up the program with “I hope today’s comments won’t send you out to the nearest bar,” I realized the niceties were over; we were going to be getting some straight talk about the success of women in the profession.

Sheli Z. Rosenberg, a Principal at Roselin Investments and a former managing partner at the law firm of Schiff Hardin LLP, went to great pains to share with us her views about the lack of women lawyers in the Boardrooms, C-Suites and Managing Partnership ranks across the country.  The numbers don’t add up she noted; for years now, women have easily made up 50% or more of law school student bodies.  So why do we remain so underrepresented at the highest levels?

Instead of solely laying blame at the feet of big, male-dominated institutions, Rosenberg charged those of us in the room, and our counterparts, to challenge the acceptability of these kinds of statistics.  Referring to “at least 100 things” she now knows (after having had to learn them the hard way) that can help women in law move ahead faster and more directly, Rosenberg agreed to let me share 10 of her top mantras:

Seek out a “reasonable” lifestyle, not a perfect one.

As a professional, there will be times when you simply have to suck it up and work a 24 hour shift.  But it shouldn’t be all the time and no one, neither male nor female, can be expected to put in 24/7 effort on a consistent basis.  Demand down time!

Make your voice heard.

The days in which you could succeed by just keeping your head down and doing a good job are past.  You should still be civil and thoughtful with your comments, but remember that important issues often need to be raised from the bottom up, even if change ultimately comes from the top down.  And don’t be afraid to enlist your male counterparts in this endeavor; they are likely feeling a lot of the same concerns but may be more reticent to share.

Role models are key to changing perspectives.

Wherever possible, we need to help promote and elect women to positions of power.  When men see women at the highest levels of law, business, politics and academia the image becomes more normative, making it easier for other women to make the same leap.

Find many informal mentors.

Rather than seek out one formal relationship, Rosenberg says women benefit as much or more from learning something from a multitude of teachers.  Listening, learning, and participating in diverse experiences are the best ways to grow professionally—and to grow your network.

Network, Network, Network

No one can do this thing alone.  The contacts we create follow us throughout our entire careers.  Really good networkers use their lists to help others connect, and only secondarily use them to benefit their own agenda.  (Remember that old adage “It’s better to give than to receive”?)

Get out!

The best way to round out your view of yourself is to step out of the office and out of the practice of law to interact with other businesses and organizations.  Civic involvement feels rewarding, is often fun and gives you the chance to (see #5) grow your network.

Refer business from women to women.

If “He who has the gold makes the rules” we need to keep more of that gold in women’s hands.

If you have a client with legal needs, don’t just refer that matter to some firm—find a woman attorney at that firm who you respect and entrust her to be the billing attorney for that matter.

Always listen to what a recruiter has to say.

This is just another way to be reminded of our own value.  Sometimes affirmation sticks better when it is delivered from an outside source.  Not to mention that you never know what might evolve from a single introduction….take every meeting you can get and keep your eyes and ears open for future potential.

Get your own “Guru.”

Everybody needs someone to talk to.  Whether it’s a clergy member, a psychologist, a psychiatrist, a career coach or someone else, we need to be able to unburden ourselves and get an objective perspective on our strengths and weaknesses.  Women tend to be more prone to self-doubt/self-criticism; get someone you trust to help balance the load.

Take the risk.

Whether that means getting in a little over your head for a new job or speaking up when you have something important to say or simply sitting in the front row at a meeting, no risk often means no reward.  Think outside traditional boxes.  Promote yourself when you have something to promote.  Don’t apologize before you offer your opinion.  Use your unique skill sets, even those typically “female” ones, to your advantage.

At the end of the day, Rosenberg points out, it will require both men and women coming together to create a major culture shift.  But taking these 10 learnings to heart right now is a great way to get things started.


Cheryl Rich Heisler is the President and Founder of Lawternatives, a career consultancy assisting lawyers with transitions inside, outside and around the law.  Learn more at  She is also on the board of the ABA Career Center.