Now thriving in private practice and looking back on my career, I see the error of my ways. I failed to both properly promote my accomplishments and share my ideas. More specifically, I would win a case or obtain positive feedback from a client and not take any steps to make this known to my superiors for fear of sounding too narcissistic. In addition, I failed to communicate my ideas with management because I assumed I was merely stating the obvious or the ideas were not worth saying aloud.
These feelings of humility and self-doubt are especially common among women and may explain why female attorneys are not paid on the same level as men. Indeed, according to a recent study done by the Project for Attorney Retention and the Minority Corporate Counsel Association called “New Millennium, Same Glass Ceiling?” female attorneys within the highest ranks of elite law firms are paid, on average, roughly $66,000 less than their male counterparts. And according to the study’s authors, this pay disparity is not merely a consequence of women bearing the burden of family responsibilities, and thus, as the argument goes, being less focused and not as productive. Instead, the study concluded that rather than this oft-cited “family obligation” theory, the biggest contributing factors to pay disparity between male and female attorneys include stereotyping, gender bias, and even intimidation.
So what can we, as female attorneys, do to change things? I spoke to a number of successful women lawyers, both in-house and in the private sector, who had these words of wisdom to share.
A senior attorney at a prominent construction law firm in New York City advises to “be better than the average man” by becoming accredited and/or more specialized in your chosen practice area. In her male-dominated practice of construction law, this attorney often finds herself in conference rooms of 10 or more men with her as the sole woman. When she has attempted to contribute her ideas, she has often felt belittled or that her ideas were not taken as seriously simply because she is a woman. To overcome this hurdle, and in an effort to make herself stand out, she became accredited as a LEED Green Associate, a credential intended for professionals who want to demonstrate green or environmentally friendly building expertise in nontechnical fields of practice. There are very few attorneys—men or women for that matter—in New York City that hold such an accreditation unless they happen to also be an architect or engineer by training. The construction attorney has since added this accreditation to her web profile, business cards, and email signature. To further her goal, she has joined the New York City Chapter of the United States Green Building Council as well as the Professional Women in Construction, a group that has since become coed. With her new and respected accreditation and affiliations, she hopes to secure a reputation as an expert in green building, a significant trend in construction law, and thereby stand out as a woman in a male-dominated field.
A former in-house counsel for a Fortune 500 company firmly agrees with the proposition that women are often less adept than men at self-promotion. This innate disadvantage was exacerbated by the “old boy’s club” atmosphere that existed at her company and that is prevalent at many firms today, law or otherwise. One way she was able to become comfortable with self-promotion was to promote women’s causes generally. For example, as in-house counsel responsible for securing a narrow list of law firms to handle the company’s legal matters, she consistently encouraged the use of female and other minority attorneys and firms. While promoting diversity was consistent with the firm’s policy, it was not done in practice by her male colleagues. By advocating for women and leading by example, she was able to bring other competent women into what was historically a man’s circle while, at the same time, reinforcing the importance of diversity to management.
Finally, a current in-house counsel at another Fortune 500 company (who has always felt comfortable in a male-dominated practice) simply advises to be strong in your convictions. More specifically, women have a tendency to preface their thoughts with expressions of self-doubt, such as “maybe we could consider . . .” or “it might be a good idea if . . .” Instead, have confidence with your ideas and speak with authority by saying “what we should do is . . .” or “it definitely makes sense if we . . .” By using authoritative phrases, you will command respect and your ideas will be taken far more seriously.
There is more than one way to promote yourself as a female attorney to combat gender bias and pay disparity. Whether it is by further specializing in your practice area, promoting women’s causes, learning how to communicate your ideas more effectively, or some other way, how you choose to do it is less important than doing it. In my experience, I have found that the list of perceived “best” attorneys is quite distinct from the list of those that are actually the most competent. The perceived “best” attorneys are often the ones that “make the sounds” that everyone can hear, while the actual “best” attorneys—often highly talented females—are like the proverbial tree: unknown and thus underrated simply because they do not know how to properly promote themselves. Don’t be that tree! Hard work will serve as your foundation for success, but only through self-promotion can you properly build on that foundation and truly be perceived as—and thus be—the best attorney you can be.
Keywords: young lawyer, female attorney, self promotion, promote your work