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April 16, 2012 Articles

Strategies for “Getting, Using, and Keeping Power in the Legal Profession”

Leaders in the legal profession convened with academics and business leaders with the goal of advancing women in the legal profession.

By Kerry Murphy
[T]he glass ceiling still looms over us. Over the last 10 years the percentage of women general counsel and partners, both equity and nonequity, have remained virtually unchanged. . . . In the twenty-first century, this is simply unacceptable. Now is the time for each of us to assert our power and transform the profession for ourselves and for future generations of women lawyers.

–Roberta Liebenberg, Philadelphia attorney and former chair of the American Bar Association’s Commission on Women in the Profession

Ms. Liebenberg made the above call to action at the 2011 Power Summit on Law and Leadership. At the summit, hosted by the Center for Women in Law at the University of Texas at Austin, 150 leaders in the legal profession, such as law firm managing partners, judges, general counsel, and law school deans, convened with academics and business leaders to examine power and leadership dynamics with the goal of advancing women in the legal profession. In January 2012, the Center for Women in Law published a white paper setting forth strategies for getting, using, and keeping power in legal institutions and identifies steps that women leaders today can take to accelerate the advancement of women in the legal profession. See Linda Bray Chanow and Lauren Stiller Rikleen, Center for Women in Law, Power in Law: Lessons from the 2011 Women’s Power Summit on Law and Leadership  (2012). The report asserts that power is part of leadership, and “if women are to make meaningful advances in the legal profession, they must therefore master the language and dynamics of power.”

Seven Individual Strategies for “Getting, Using, and Keeping Power”

1. Get Comfortable with the Pursuit of Power The report states that women often feel discomfort with the concept of power, whether due to internal or external gender bias, citing different possible sources of this discomfort. Patricia Sellers, editor at large of Fortune,stated that women and men often define power differently; women focus on “influence” or impacting others and men focus on “control” or “getting people to do what they don’t want to do.” This difference, Sellers asserted, is partly because there is a narrower range of acceptable language for women to use to describe power. Author Anna Fels argues that the cultural definitions of gender creates tension for women “who must reconcile the pursuit of power in their workplaces with long-established definitions of femininity.” At the summit, Fels also suggested that women’s discomfort with power may stem not from gender bias but from a view that power is oppressive, and urged women to view power in a more positive light––as something that allows you to solve problems and create solutions. Overall, the report urges women to understand the source of any discomfort with power to address that discomfort and move beyond it.

2. Be Intentional About What You Are Seeking The report urges women to develop a “clarity of purpose” that will aid in the successful pursuit of power. The report highlights stories from highly successful women, such as Mary Cranston, senior partner and chair emeritus, Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP. Cranston stated that when she was a lawyer with young children, time management was a “critical issue” for her; thus, she only agreed to take on professional, personal, and family commitments that aligned with her own goals. Cranston urged women to set goals and then to take “baby steps” each day to move toward those goals. Cranston’s comments may strike a particular chord with young women attorneys who have small children, but all attorneys would be well-advised to ensure that our commitments are worthwhile and connected to a larger goal.

3. Face Your Fears Citing Jeffrey Pfeffer’s book, Power: Why Some People Have It—and Others Don’t––the report asserts that building power requires taking risks and stepping outside of your comfort zone. Thus, the report discusses some of the fears identified by its panelists of distinguished women lawyers. Nearly all of these women––from federal judges to partners at major law firms––had to learn to face the fear of failure. Another common fear experienced by women is a fear of making mistakes, which can stem from self-imposed pressure to be perfect. Citing a popular blog post entitled “Don’t Leave Before You Leave,”by Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, Sellers argued that women may pass up new opportunities or “scale back their ambition in anticipation of perceived conflicts with their personal lives.” Michele Coleman Mayes, general counsel, Allstate Insurance Company, raised what she called the “fear of leaving”––stating that many women “will not leave” and that her willingness to “leave places” contributed to her ability to build power in her career. Whatever one’s fears, the report argues that the pursuit of power requires women to identify and face their fears on a regular basis and to take risks.

4. Identify and Build Strategic Relationships Summit speakers and panelists all agreed that strategic relationships are indispensable to the pursuit of power. Thus, they spoke about identifying useful connections and building relationships that enabled them to reach their career goals. A few of the key suggestions highlighted in the report are:

to create a networking map identifying and categorizing all of your connections;

to ask for help, because “asking is flattering”;

to identify “incidental random similarities,” because research shows that we tend to like and want to help people who are similar to ourselves; and

to find a reciprocal advantage between you and the person whose help you are seeking.

The final strategy may be more appealing to many women because it feels more authentic than networking for the pure sake of getting something. This section of the report offers useful ideas that young women lawyers can use to move beyond pure networking and into the development of strategic relationships.

5. Act With Power The report argues that “[t]he appearance of power and influence can be as useful as power itself” and that coming across as confident and knowledgeable can help to build influence. One concrete suggestion in terms of how we as women lawyers can act with power and confidence is to give ourselves a professional label. For example, Claudette Christian, cochair of the board, Hogan Lovells, stated that her decision to give herself a label––a project finance lawyer––helped her to develop a busy and satisfying practice in that area. The summit panelists also discussed gender bias and the related tension between appearing competent and appearing “nice.” They urged women not to agree to work that detracts from their professional goals––for example, in academia, not agreeing to take on committee work to the detriment of one’s publication goals. Joan C. Williams, distinguished professor of law, 1066 Foundation chair and director of the Center for WorkLife Law, University of California, Hastings College of Law, advised women to “[b]e relentlessly pleasant but ask for what you want.”

6. Don’t Cede the Hill The report quotes Jeffrey Pfeffer, Thomas D. II Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford, who argues that persistence and resilience are the most important qualities for getting and keeping power. The report provides general advice on not giving up in the face of failures or setbacks, such as beginning with the end goal in mind, playing to your strengths, and thinking strategically. It also addresses another obstacle women may face––gender bias. The report highlights stories from Brooksley Born and Stephanie Streeter. Born, former chair of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, faced harsh criticism when she tried to bring to light abuses in the financial system. She withstood the criticism by focusing on what she considered her public duty as the head of the regulatory agency with responsibility for the financial markets––to look out for the public interest. Streeter was CEO of Banta Corp. during a hostile takeover; while she experienced extensive gender bias during the takeover, she focused on her overarching goal––“not letting X get control of the company” and “marshaled resource after resource to make sure that happened.”

7. Practice The final strategy set forth in the report for getting and keeping power is to practice. Numerous summit panelists have used professional “coaches” in their careers. Coaches can help you to learn about your strengths and weaknesses, help you move beyond your comfort zone, and hold you accountable. The report also emphasizes that another way to “practice” power skills is to volunteer, because volunteer experiences outside your place of employment can provide opportunities to lead.

“Leveraging Our Individual and Collective Power” The report argues that “increasing your individual power is necessary but not sufficient” and urges women to leverage their power, individually and collectively, to accelerate women’s advancement into the highest ranks of the legal profession. Further, the report sets forth specific steps, large and small, that women leaders can take to exercise their power on behalf of women in the profession. First, it lists things that can be done right away, such as:

Select a woman to be part of an important client team.

Promote the achievements of a woman to a leader inside and/or outside your organization.

Refer a business and/or job opportunity to a woman.

Take a junior woman to a professional meeting or networking event.


Second, the report proposes things that can be done in the next three months, such as:

Nominate, recommend, or support a woman for a leadership position, such as on a bar association committee or nonprofit board.

Encourage peers to sponsor a high-potential woman by incorporating her into their practice areas and business development activities.

Coach a woman on how to build her book of business and support her efforts to do so, such as by taking a woman along on business development trips.

Encourage a woman to seek a judicial position and support her efforts to do so.


Finally, the report provides ideas of things that can be done this year, such as:

For in-house counsel, make clear that you expect women to play an important role in all of your outside counsel teams.

Do a statistical review of compensation decisions within your organization to identify any discrepancies in pay, and advocate for fair pay.

Work to elect more women to your organization’s leadership committees and/or boards of directors.

Develop and implement internal systems that advance women, such as by creating systems to train women attorneys on expanding client relationships or by developing flexible schedule opportunities within your firm.


Overall, Power in Law provides a valuable resource for all women attorneys including new associates, high-level partners, in-house counsel, judges, law professors, and others. It sets forth clear strategies that women can employ both to further their own careers and to partake in a larger effort to build the power of women in the legal profession.

Keywords: woman advocate, litigation, strategies, legal profession