YourABA December 2012 Masthead

Top women lawyers share leadership insights

Risk takers make better leaders. That’s the message from a panel of women at the top of the legal profession who shared their secrets for success Oct. 18 at Women’s Leadership in the Law, a program presented in Chicago by the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession, Chicago Bar Association Alliance for Women, National Association of Women Lawyers and Seyfarth Shaw LLP.

The panel included Mary B. Cranston, chair of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession and a retired senior partner at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP; Fernande R.V. Duffly, associate justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court; and Denise Keane, executive vice president and general counsel of the Altria Group Inc. Jessica Kornberg, former executive director of Ms. JD and associate at Bird, Marella, Boxer, Wolpert, Nessim, Drooks & Lincenberg, moderated the session.

AUDIO: Panelist Cranston advises women on career success

Challenging biases against women on the job is key to climbing up to the highest rungs on the career ladder.

“A risk worth taking is one that is authentic to you,” said Cranston of the leadership-building opportunities presented to women. She encouraged those in the audience to move past the fear of failure and other self-limiting beliefs, which she said are nothing more than conditioned reactions. “Don’t let your own mind stop you,” she said. 

If you have two choices to make and one of them makes you feel like your parents would approve and you’ll feel safe, that’s probably not the choice to take, Cranston said. “The one that you deep down really want to do but you think is impossible — that’s where to go,” she said.

Keane cited an attention to diversity as one of the keys to her success. Diversity drives her decision-making process on everyday matters, and it has affected how she’s designed her law department. “I want the perspective from people who look at issues differently [than the norm], see risk differently and give me a contrarian perspective to what otherwise might be an instinctive approach to a problem,” she said.

AUDIO: Panelist Duffly advises women on career success

Keane acknowledged the courage it takes to be a contrarian and urged those with diverse views to be persistent enough to make sure they are heard.

“Never lose your voice,” said Keane, emphasizing, “it’s key to your success. It’s what we bring to the table that other people don’t have.”  

Fear is an obstacle to success for many women. Plagued by self-doubt when she first thought about becoming a judge, Duffly told herself, “If you really want to be a judge, you first have to get over yourself.”

After overcoming fear and self-doubt, next comes learning to expect and get rejection, she said, adding, “Then you have to learn to get up and do it again.”

Although women have made great strides in the workplace, the panel acknowledged that today much of the discrimination against women is unconscious and more hidden. Challenging biases against women on the job is key to climbing up to the highest rungs on the career ladder. Citing recent research, Cranston said, “The strongest stereotype is ‘men take charge, women take care.’” Knowing where you want to go and overcommunicating your intentions are the best ways to trump that bias, she said.

“The way to speak up for yourself is to figure out who in the organization can get you where you want to go,” Cranston advised. Telling that person about your aspirations is a first step. The next is to speak factually about your accomplishments, to illustrate your ability to think strategically.  Keep in mind, cautioned Cranston, “It’s important to come from the perspective of the person you’re talking to.”

Figuring out what others want in life and offering to make it happen is the way most men network, Cranston said. “[Men] don’t have deep friendships. [They have] quid pro quo relationships,” she elaborated. Women who rise from the middle of the pack to the top positions in business understand that and have fostered such relationships to get ahead.

AUDIO: Panelist Keane advises women on career success

While all the panelists insisted that charting a path to leadership is vital, sometimes luck and circumstance play a role in reaching the top. Duffly never planned to become a divorce lawyer. But she credits her detour into family law with helping to give her the qualifications she needed to become a judge. “Keep your mind open to the possibilities,” she counseled. 

You should have multiple ways in which you can position yourself for success, said Keane, who also stressed the need for versatility. “Look for different ways to deploy your talent.”

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