December 11, 2017

Grit Gains Ground

By G.M. Filisko

In the two-plus years since the Grit Project was launched by the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession (CWP) to educate women lawyers on the science behind grit and a growth mindset—two traits many successful women lawyers possess—its effects have been felt across the country.

The woman whose research underpins the project, Milana L. Hogan, has been invited to speak on her research and the project more than 50 times. “Anytime I give a program, I get a lot of positive input from attendees,” says the New York City–based liaison to CWP and the project’s cochair. “Also, a lot of law schools are now incorporating this into their curriculum.”

The Commission isn’t letting up on its efforts to build on the project’s success. In addition to the toolkit already available for those planning presentations on the program, in August 2017 CWP will release a book: Grit, the Secret to Advancement: Stories of Successful Women Lawyers. It features new research by Hogan, along with firsthand accounts from trailblazing women lawyers.

“The Commission funded additional research, and that’s reflected in the book,” notes Katherine M. Larkin-Wong, an associate at Latham & Watkins LLP in San Francisco, California, and cochair of the Grit Project Committee. “But one of my favorite parts about the book is letters from women about grit and the growth mindset as part of their practice. It’s really special to hear from women who are taking on a variety of issues.”

The Science Behind Grit

The idea that successful female lawyers are “gritty” and have a growth mindset has been established through Hogan’s research. From 2010 to 2013, Hogan studied successful women at AmLaw 200 firms to determine if there was a statistically meaningful connection between various measures of success achieved by those women and their score on a quiz evaluating the qualities—a passion and perseverance for long-term goals—that make up grit.

“Is it that people with higher grit scores will do better?” Hogan asked. “The answer was yes.”

In 2015, CWP sponsored expanded research by Hogan, which will be featured in the new book. “The second round of research is looking at women lawyers everywhere—in-house, those working for the government, judges, solo practitioners, and those working at small law firms,” Hogan notes. “The question was how grit impacts success in those contexts.”

Hogan stresses that her research and the Grit Project aren’t suggesting that the secret to success is hard work. “Women lawyers are the hardest-working people I know,” she says. “Grit and a growth mindset are about working hard in a specific way.”

At its core, grit involves a specific kind of focused work called deliberative practice and a commitment to do the work necessary to achieve long-term goals. “Some people call it being in the zone,” explains Hogan, who adds that the concept originated with Swedish psychologist and scholar Anders Ericsson. “It’s where the rest of the world could be falling apart and you’re firing on all cylinders. Everything’s clicking, and you’re deeply, deeply focused. And if you are gritty, you regularly engage in this as a deliberate practice over an extremely long term. It’s hard to do.”

For women who’ve succeeded in the law, the project rings true, particularly in light of the trending research and discussion today about how women can become successful in the workforce. “What I find fascinating in all these recent different articles, books, and research is that there are still a lot of stories of successful women and how it took a level of grit for them to succeed—but they didn’t say the word ‘grit,’” says Carrie Hightman, executive vice president and chief legal officer at NiSource Inc. in Merrillville, Indiana, and cochair of the Grit Project Committee. “There’s been much research and discussion about what’s necessary to succeed and prosper, and there’s more to be done. It’s probably a tougher row to hoe than we all thought.”

Grit Is Good; Growth Is Better

Grit, however, isn’t enough for women to flourish. The most successful female lawyers also possess a growth mindset. That’s the belief that your talent and intelligence are not fixed and that your performance can go up and down based on the amount of effort you exert.

“Generalizations are always dangerous, but lawyers in general are pretty type A and high-performing,” Larkin-Wong says. “Often lawyers haven’t faced a ton of struggle. They were successful in college, which is part of what got them to law school. Then they were successful in law school. They often come into the profession with a lot of wins and may not be great at bouncing back. The real power of grit and a growth mindset is to make it easier for lawyers to reset their mindset when they struggle and to see it as an opportunity for growth.”

Hightman knows firsthand the setbacks that can either motivate or cripple new lawyers. “I literally had a partner I worked for when I was an associate tell me I could never make partner,” she recalls. “I put my head down and kept on working, and I made partner. I later became head of the practice group.

“If it wasn’t for my thick skin, my willingness to push aside criticism, and my ability to maybe feel bad and then move on, I wouldn’t have succeeded,” Hightman adds. “That’s what grit is about.”

Larkin-Wong also vividly remembers a challenging moment she could have let hamper her career. As a first-year associate, she worked directly with a partner and got an opportunity to draft a motion. “I worked so hard on that very first motion,” she says. “It came back bleeding from Track Changes, of course, because I was a newer associate. In that moment, my failure voices kicked in—those voices inside that tell you, ‘You’re going to get fired. You won’t be able to pay your student loans. You’re going to be living on the street.’”

Women with grit and a growth mindset hear these voices and push forward, rooting out what they can learn from each setback. “In that situation, the questions I had to ask were: Did this partner teach me anything I can apply to the next two motions I have to write or that I can use on another partner’s case?” Larkin-Wong explains. “That ability to take that moment and see it as an opportunity to grow is the real power. That exponential learning curve you’re on is made easier by your ability to roll with the punches.

“Resilience is important for all lawyers, but it’s particularly important for women lawyers,” Larkin-Wong adds. “Research shows it’s been important among successful women rainmakers.”

Expanding Students’ Minds

The growth mindset is something Linda Bray Chanow, executive director of the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin) School of Law Center for Women in Law, says is now being taught in the law school after being tested on the school’s main campus.

The main campus pilot program measured whether disadvantaged students, who tend not to complete 12 credits their first semester and thus are less likely to graduate, were more successful on the 12-credit metric after watching an online growth mindset module. Participants viewed a 30-minute video featuring students currently in their senior year talking about how they felt when they arrived on campus. They admitted that they often thought they couldn’t succeed and weren’t as smart as others. Then they talked about how sticking it out led to their success.

“This module cut the gap between disadvantaged and advantaged kids in half,” Chanow says. “We believe that if you don’t have a growth mindset, you’re not going to have the perseverance and passion to move forward. The good news is that you can have a fixed mindset but can move toward a growth mindset. So we now teach the growth mindset in all our programs, and it can take as little to make that happen as this 30-minute module. Whether the mindset has to be reinforced throughout a student’s education, we believe it does. But studies are still ongoing on that.”

Courtney Chavez, deputy director of the UT Austin law school’s Center for Women in Law, which is geared toward second- and third-year students and some judicial clerks, is heading the direct implementation of the growth mindset initiative. As part of an all-day program covering such topics as communicating with impact, demonstrating value, and networking, the presenters lead a 15-minute conversation about the growth mindset.

“We tell participants they’re all going to face challenges and that parts of the day will be very difficult,” Chavez says. “We talk about how they can consider those challenges opportunities to grow. It changes their mindset as they approach the day. Then during the day, the attorneys who are critiquing them give them real feedback, and it’s hard to take in all the behaviors you have to modify. When we give them the mindset, they take the constructive feedback about their skills a lot better.”

Chavez is also heading a pilot program for first-year female lawyers in mid-sized and large firms. “We offered it to firms that have first-year women associates, and they took us up on it,” she says. “We’re putting in a module specifically about the growth mindset to prepare them for the transition from law school to being an effective attorney. We’re rolling it out to see how it affects attorneys and how to improve it.”

How Grit Is Growing

CWP’s Grit Project has taken these concepts and provided all the materials necessary for bar groups, firms, and others to educate women and others on its fundamentals. Larkin-Wong says the materials in the toolkit have now been presented at hundreds, perhaps thousands, of events.

“The idea was, ‘Hey, these ideas are transformative, and we want to make them available to anyone and everyone and make them widely known among women lawyers,’” Hogan notes. “We want to increase retention and build better numbers showing more representation of women in the practice. That’s what the toolkit does. It’s everything you need to put on a grit program, even if you just want to get a reading group together or host a group of women lawyers and meet for lunch. It’s kind of a program in a box.”

Larkin-Wong says the toolkit includes a PowerPoint presentation that translates Hogan’s research into an easy-to-understand format. “It also includes a bunch of scenarios to help people apply what they learn in the PowerPoint,” she points out. “They’re from 25 different women, so it includes a lot of voices talking about what they’ve seen occur in real life. It’s everything from the law student who struggles on a midterm to the woman who doesn’t get invited on the golf outing with a client.

“We continue to develop those scenarios and have asked people to continue to submit them to the committee,” Larkin-Wong continues. “We’ve adopted pay equity and matter-origination issues in the examples because teaching them is really key. We’ve incorporated a lot of the issues we know women lawyers in particular experience.”

The book to be released in August 2017 will expand on that foundation by reporting Hogan’s new research and supplementing it with real-life experiences. Hightman says, “The women talk about how their male bosses treated them tougher and that they were less a part of the group—all these stories about how unless you had grit, you couldn’t have succeeded. They’re the stories of success.

“But think about how many women haven’t been taught to develop that ability and fortitude,” she adds. “Don’t for a minute think the work is done. We have a long way to go. We were right on in picking grit as a topic to cover and try to tackle. The concept of grit is the explanation for so much of the challenges women face in the workplace.”