Last October, shortly after the release of the latest ABA Commission on Women in the Profession publication Learning to Lead: What Really Works for Women in Law, the ABA Young Lawyers Division decided the material called for a webinar.
When 300 people registered, the Division had to increase the bandwidth and up the number of registrants allowed. When 800 people registered, they scheduled a second webinar.
“We had astounding numbers [dial in for] both of the webinars,” says Lacy Durham, a tax manager in the Dallas office of Deloitte Tax LLP and chair-elect of the Young Lawyers Division. “It just shows that women are still struggling with how to pull it all together. This was about equipping women with fundamental tools that can help them navigate some situations.”
“It was amazing,” says moderator Margaret Masunaga, deputy director for the county of Hawaii’s planning department and a member of the Commission on Women in the Profession. “We had so many people asking questions, I couldn’t get them answered fast enough.”
What Leadership Looks Like
At 128 pages, the book is a short, clear, practical guide that is quickly spreading through book clubs and other discussion forums. And since its publication last August, author Gindi Eckel Vincent, an environmental lawyer for Exxon Mobil Corp., Houston, has been speaking to both medium and large law firms and teleconferencing with bar associations across the country.
“There really isn’t anything out there that applies leadership principles to women practicing law,” Vincent says. “I wanted to capture what leadership looks like and give practical information for women to use whether they’re in law firms or nonprofits or government.”
The book draws from myriad sources to synthesize research on leadership qualities shown by women and combines it with anecdotal evidence on leadership techniques. It identifies challenges faced by women in the workplace and places them in context, while discussing the most current research on leadership qualities exhibited by women who succeed. At the heart of the book are eight practical application steps (see sidebar) gleaned from research.
The book also features interviews with top women leaders in the legal profession and the judiciary. The final section—the leadership makeovers—presents common scenarios faced by women, followed by an assessment of each situation and the challenges that must be overcome, along with a “to do” list plan.
“There’s really nothing like it out there,” says Mary B. Cranston, former Commission chair and a retired senior partner of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP, San Francisco. “It’s focused so you can absorb the information relatively quickly, which is important because women lawyers are so busy.”
Creating a Practical Plan
Cranston approached Vincent about the book shortly after stepping down as chair of the Commission. While continuing to serve on numerous public boards, Cranston became immersed in the information available for women in leadership. However, it became apparent to her that the information was not readily available to women lawyers.
“My thought was not to reinvent the wheel, but to take what is out there, put it in context, and make it meaningful and digestible to women lawyers,” Cranston says.
After speaking with Vincent, they mapped out a plan. Both women felt that while many corporate departments are good at leadership training, it didn’t necessarily translate to helping women in the legal profession.
In writing the book, Vincent talked to more than 100 women between 30 and 50 years of age and asked them, “Where are you stuck?” She then compiled many of the issues raised and approached leaders in the profession. Interviewing 11 women who are profiled in the book, Vincent presented these questions and asked their advice. The result is a practical plan for many of the scenarios brought to her by real women.
Cranston points out that most law firms do not have the budget to do targeted legal training on leadership. Although the book’s intention was to target individual women lawyers to show readers how women lead in a gender-biased environment, it also was envisioned as a tool for discussion within women bar associations and book clubs.
“The more I learned about gender stereotyping, the easier my life became,” Cranston says. “A little education can go a long way. Women can make some subtle adjustments that can make a big difference.”
How to Make Your Move
Carrie Hightman is executive vice president and chief legal officer for NiSource Inc., Merrillville, Indiana, a former president of AT&T Illinois, and one of the women leaders featured in the book. She points out that often a different standard of treatment in the workplace applies to women, who frequently operate in surroundings that are rife with implicit bias. “If a woman doesn’t recognize the realities of perceptions, she is not well-served.”
Hightman emphasizes that women must take control of their situations and decide what is right for them in their careers. She encourages all women to look beyond the “linear approach” of a standard career trajectory to determine what is right for each individual at any given point in her career.
“If you passively sit back and let your bosses suggest your next career move, you’re not owning your career,” says Hightman, who also emphasizes authenticity when defining goals. “You shouldn’t adjust yourself so much that it’s not real or not truly who you are.”
The launch of the book coincided with initial work on the Commission’s new initiative, the Grit Project (see Ann Farmer’s article on page 4). Both the book and the Grit Project focus on researched and in-depth assessments on leadership qualities and present core findings about how successful women lead.
It’s About ‘Stick-to-it-iveness’
“It’s about ‘stick-to-it-iveness,’” Cranston says. “While you have a lot of grit, you also need an understanding of gender bias. The book educates people about what really causes this glass ceiling, addresses what the research shows about grit, and looks at fundamental attitudes that lead women to succeed.”
The idea of growth and resilience is addressed by many of the women interviewed in the book. According to Vincent, many of the most successful women she interviewed were able to turn failure around. “In today’s culture, everything is tweeted, blogged, texted from someone’s phone so if the words come out wrong, it’s out there.”
But once a woman acknowledges that it’s okay to fail, it can be tremendously freeing. “The women showed that sometimes that failure takes you in an entirely different direction,” Vincent notes.
She also hopes the book will not only provide the tools to succeed, but also encouragement. “All the research shows that the more diverse an organization is, the more successful it is. I hope this encourages people to step out by seeing other women who come back from a big loss.”
Vincent also points out that some women feel stuck or lost just returning from a maternity leave or taking care of an elderly parent. “Everyone’s leadership life cycle is different.”
In the meantime, discussions about the book are still being scheduled. In July, the Woman Advocate Committee of the ABA Section of Litigation conducted a telephone roundtable about the book.
For more information on upcoming discussions, visit the Commission on Women in the Profession’s website at www.americanbar.org/groups/women.html.
The Leadership List—8 Steps for Women in Law
Adapted from Learning to Lead: What Really Works for Women in Law
- Be True to Yourself
- Be Optimistic
- Take Risks
- Chart Your Course
- Have a Vision and Communicate It
- Build Relationships (Including Mentors)
- Toot Your Own Horn
- Speak Up