chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
May 16, 2019 Articles

Getting a Seat at the Table: Advice for Women Lawyers on the Path to Partnership

Four women provide invaluable insight into how they became partners within their firms.

By Ebony S. Morris

Over the past few years, more women are entering the legal profession and are attaining leadership positions in law firms. According to recent reports, women lawyers account for 35 percent of all law firm attorneys. Of that percentage, 24 percent are partners. In sum, roughly 12 percent of top leadership positions at firms are held by women lawyers.

While these numbers appear bleak to young women lawyers on the road to law firm partnership, it does give some hope that the needle is slowly but surely moving in the right direction.

So how can women lawyers attain these leadership roles within their firms? Four women partners have provided tips for success in the law firm environment.

Linda Perez Clark is the first female managing partner of Kean Miller, LLP, the first in the firm’s 35-year existence. Ms. Clark oversees all business, financial, and operational aspects of the firm’s offices in Louisiana and Texas. Ms. Clark has been instrumental in diversity and inclusion initiatives at Kean Miller and founded the Kean Miller Connection program, which focuses on undergraduate minorities who are interested in attending law school.

Christi G. Jones is a director with Maron Marvel Bradley Anderson & Tardy, LLC, in the Jackson, Mississippi, office. Since 2008, Mrs. Jones has represented product suppliers and equipment manufacturers targeted in asbestos litigation. She has served as national counsel for diversified global companies frequently targeted in mass tort litigation and defended a major American chemical manufacturer with significant asbestos liability in Mississippi.

Sheryl M. Howard is a partner with Duplass Zwain, Bourgeois, Pfister, Weinstock & Bogart APLC in Metairie, Louisiana. Ms. Howard had an untraditional path to becoming a partner. She began her career as an in-house attorney for 12 years for two of the largest insurance companies in the country and spent nine years in private insurance defense practice as a senior trial attorney. In 2003, she was appointed by the Louisiana Supreme Court as judge pro tempore for the Civil District Court for the Parish of Orleans.

Adrejia L. Boutté Swafford, a corporate and commercial litigator with Christovich & Kearney, LLP, of New Orleans, Louisiana, since 2006, is one of the two first minority partners in the firm’s history. With a background in psychology, business law, and compliance, Mrs. Swafford practices corporate and commercial litigation. A 2010 graduate of the Bryan Bell Metropolitan Leadership Forum (a program of the Committee for a Better New Orleans), Mrs. Swafford is very involved in bar and community organizations, focusing on diversity issues, teens, and cyber risk.

All four women provided invaluable insight into how they became partners within their firms, and the following is some advice gleaned from their interviews.

1. Actively Seek Mentors and Sponsors

Fortunately, when Ms. Clark entered the legal profession, she was paired with a mentor within her firm who happened to be a woman. Her mentor was incredibly instrumental in assisting with her transition into the legal profession and also served as her biggest cheerleader. Though she was paired with a law firm mentor, Ms. Clark noted the importance of women lawyers actively seeking mentors within their firms. “Mentors within a firm can provide advice on how to navigate the ins and outs of the law firm and can assist with women lawyers’ professional growth within the firm,” says Ms. Clark.

Similarly, Mrs. Swafford emphasized the necessity of women taking the initiative to seek mentors and sponsors within, as well as outside, their firms. When Mrs. Swafford started in commercial defense, a newbie to the defense culture and type of practice, she self-assigned two mentors (outside her firm). In addition, she actively sought sponsors within her firm. “These individuals were and are still vital to my professional development,” says Swafford. Mrs. Swafford credited much of her professional growth to both her mentors and sponsors, all of whom provided valuable support and always kept an interest in her continuous client involvement.

Similarly, Ms. Howard stressed the need for a village of mentors and sponsors. Though she began her career as an in-house attorney, she recalled various mentors within her company who took an early interest in her professional growth. Throughout her career, Ms. Howard was able to forge relationships with local judges and, interestingly, opposing counsel, who graciously provided valuable advice. Even today, Ms. Howard uses those relationships with those individuals she encountered early on in her career. Needless to say, those individuals have proven to be some of her most valuable and supportive allies.

2. Expand Your Network Through Marketing Opportunities

“You should market yourself from inception,” notes Mrs. Swafford. Mrs. Swafford noted that women are outnumbered in the legal profession, and so marketing should be a part of our daily fiber, long before we know whether we want to be partners within our firms. In addition, Mrs. Jones emphasized the importance of women lawyers expanding their networks through business development and marketing conferences and noted that these opportunities serve as sources of potential client development, which, for Mrs. Jones, is crucial for women lawyers who are interested in leadership positions within their firms. Mrs. Jones noted that women, all too often, make the mistake of assuming that they are on the path to partnership so long as the partners are feeding them work, and unfortunately, women shy away from development opportunities. According to Mrs. Jones, marketing is essential for women lawyers to develop relationships outside their firms and to eventually develop their own book of business.

Ms. Howard is a perfect example of one expanding her network through marketing. Ms. Howard credits her current business relationships to her active participation and attendance at various conferences and seminars hosted by Claims Litigation Management Alliance and Defense Research Institute. By regularly attending events hosted by these organizations, as well as others, Ms. Howard has developed valuable relationships outside of her firm, and these relationships have fortunately developed into business relationships.

For all of the women, law firm success is directly linked to developing a book of business. And marketing remains one of the most important strategies for women lawyers to master on the path to partnership.

3. Be Your Own Advocate

While women lawyers should use their mentors and sponsors throughout their career, all four women encouraged women lawyers to be their own advocate. All too often, women lawyers passionately advocate for clients and partners; however, they rarely advocate for themselves in the profession.

For Ms. Howard, this is by far one of the biggest mistakes a woman lawyer can make in her career. Ms. Howard notes that women should use their experiences and skills when negotiating for client development opportunities and substantive work. “Negotiating is a skill that is learned only through practice,” says Ms. Howard. Women have to develop this skill when advocating for partnership, and it is imperative for women attorneys to speak up more when seeking professional growth opportunities.

Putting It All Together

All of the women acknowledged the reality of trying to succeed in a male-dominated profession. They also noted that the culture is not always considerate or inviting to women lawyers. However, women lawyers should not be afraid to ask for what they want in terms of professional development. Overall, these exceptionally successful women partners have benefited from their hard work and success, and all are using their power to create a pipeline for women lawyers who are seeking leadership roles within their firms.

Aspiring women lawyers who are carving a path to partnership can benefit from the collective advice gained from the interviews of these women partners. Women have faced a long history of discrimination in the legal profession and have had to fight harder, be more resilient, and press more than some of their counterparts. However, these four women are proof that if women lawyers actively seek and develop relationships with their mentors and sponsors, expand their networks through marketing opportunities, and advocate for themselves, then they can get their own seat at the table.

Ebony S. Morris is an associate in the New Orleans, Louisiana, office of Garrison, Yount, Forte & Mulcahy, LLC.

Copyright © 2019, American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association, the Section of Litigation, this committee, or the employer(s) of the author(s).