November 21, 2017 Articles

Negotiating in the Workplace, with Advice from Renowned Women Attorneys

By Valerie Samuels and Catherine Lombardo

Study after study shows that when negotiating on their own behalf, women either forgo a seat at the table or leave the table with crumbs rather than a full meal. Even when they manage to eat their fill, women are chastised for taking their fair share.

Researchers have found that women consistently concede more quickly than men when negotiating their own compensation. The stakes in these negotiations are high for individual women and for women as a group. It is well documented that ineffective salary negotiations contribute to the gender pay gap and leave women with significant lifetime wage deficits relative to their male peers. Moreover, although women generally recognize when they are making concessions and have some awareness that women as a group are leaving money on the table, women consistently give too much ground when negotiating on their own behalf.

To gain some insight into why this is and how to remedy it, we interviewed three accomplished attorneys to discuss the challenges women face negotiating in the workplace, strategies women can use when advocating on their own behalf, and what law firms and in-house departments can do to remove gender barriers. Our interviewees are:

Lauren Stiller Rikleen is the founder and president of the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership. She is an attorney, author, and expert on workplace issues and an advocate for women’s advancement, speaking, consulting, and training on these issues around the country. Her first book, Ending the Gauntlet: Removing Barriers to Women’s Success in the Law,analyzed institutional impediments to women’s advancement. Her newest book, Ladder Down: Success Strategies for Lawyers from Women Who Will Be Hiring, Reviewing, and Promoting You, offers practical advice for women and men building legal careers. Rikleen sees the work-life integration expectations of millennials as driving a more gender-neutral need for workplace change, and analyzes this in her book, You Raised Us, Now Work with Us.

Shari Claire Lewis is a litigation partner at Rivkin Radler LLP, and her particular expertise is the intersection of law and technology. Among other activities, she is a bimonthly columnist for the New York Law Journal on Internet and social media law, and frequently lectures and publishes on issues including cyber liability, data breach, and e-discovery. Lewis noted that while things have changed significantly over the course of her career, she remembers when people assumed that a female attorney was the secretary or stenographer, and clients said openly they did not want women representing them.

Nancy S. Shilepsky is a partner at Sherin & Lodgen LLP, where she chairs the firm’s Employment Department. She is a fellow of the Litigation Counsel of America (LCA), an honorary society composed of less than 0.5 percent of American lawyers, and has been a fellow of the College of Labor and Employment Lawyers since 2000. She has received numerous professional accolades and media mentions, and she graciously agreed to be interviewed for this article even though, in her words, she prefers to fight rather than settle.

What Challenges Do Women Face When Negotiating in the Workplace? 
For some time, women were assumed to be ineffectual self-advocates because they do not initiate—i.e., women don’t ask for what they want. In recent years, however, an important caveat has emerged. Studies show that when women endeavor to negotiate on their own behalf, they consistently are perceived as being self-interested, greedy, and “not a team player.” This is, in part, because gender stereotypes influence our expectations for how women and men should act. Men are expected to be aggressive, self-confident, direct, and competent, while women are expected to be unselfish, caring, and sensitive. It is expected that men will self-advocate; but that often is not the case with women. When a woman acts in her self-interest, she may be viewed as stepping outside the acceptable range of feminine behavior. Further, both men and women often are less willing to promote, mentor, and even work with women who advocate robustly for themselves. Our interviewees provided examples of this troubling dynamic.

Lewis recalled negotiating the salary for her first legal job. Her request for a raise initially was rejected because the company was paying her “enough” already. When asked what salary she wanted, she responded with a “modest” amount because she was intimidated by the initial rejection and the combative way in which her superior handled the negotiation. She ultimately secured a meager raise and began looking for a position elsewhere. When she left her job for a better position with a far more competitive salary, her superiors were indignant she had the audacity to leave after being given the raise she had “asked for.” The hostility surprised Lewis because her position was a stepping stone and she had observed several male peers leave for better offers without any negative pushback. Lewis was criticized for having the temerity to self-advocate and castigated for doing what was in her best interest.

Shilepsky has encountered gender bias at many stages of her career and noted that, simply put, when women assert themselves and seek to be treated commensurate with their worth, they run the risk of being labeled the “B word.” She noted that women often have to insist on recognition of their value, whereas male lawyers often are accorded that recognition as a matter of course—whether it be higher compensation, a better office, or a more impressive title. Even when women negotiate successfully for such recognition, they may be punished for doing so. When Shilepsky moved her practice to a new firm many years ago, she was able to secure favorable terms and some high-end office furniture. Thereafter, a male partner stormed into her office and angrily pointed out that he “owned” that office furniture and she did not; and he subsequently refused to work with her.

Rikleen noted that unconscious bias plays a critical and largely unacknowledged role in hindering women’s career development. Women frequently are penalized for self-promotion and self-advocacy. Yet both are required to advance, and this unacknowledged penalty is one of a number of reasons why female representation in law firm management and compensation committees remains dismal. When a woman is unable to advance, it negatively affects both the woman’s career development and the organization itself. For example, women frequently leave law firms because of long-standing frustration with continued gender pay disparities. The high attrition rate, particularly of more senior women, damages the firm’s bottom line.

How Can Women Be Effective Self-Advocates?
While the pushback women face for negotiating and self-promotion is real, it is not inevitable. Studies show women may use a variety of techniques to minimize negative perceptions, such as framing requests as good for the organization to minimize perceptions of greed and self-interest.

As we already noted, employing stereotypical male negotiation techniques often backfires because it draws attention to the fact that women are acting inconsistently with traditional gender expectations. Each of the interviewees indicated that women should be encouraged to act in a way that feels genuine to them. Lewis in particular noted that women would not succeed in any phase of their careers if they gave into the expectations of others and only personified others’ expectations of how a female attorney should act.

How can women overcome these barriers to get what they deserve? Our interviewees offer advice for women to effectively self-advocate:

  • Gather as much information as possible. Understand the metrics that matter to your institution and use those metrics to provide a strong basis for your request.
  • Prioritize the needs of the institution. Frame your demands in terms of the benefits they will have on the institution as a whole, rather than on yourself.
  • Emphasize what you bring to the institution. Make a habit of tracking your successes and do your best to estimate the value your efforts bring. Let management know of your successes.
  • Think about your role broadly. Women tend to take on more tasks which, while important for the institution to function, are not necessarily tracked by management (i.e., are not promotable tasks), like spearheading a committee or overseeing implementation of a new filing system. When tracking success, think outside the box and do not limit yourself to mere hours billed or business generated.
  • Do not assume that anyone is aware of your efforts in the workplace; make them aware and express your efforts in terms that will be meaningful to your audience.
  • Be authentic. Do not attempt to personify someone else, do not get derailed worrying about stereotypes, and do not get caught up in what people think about you generally as long as your behavior is respectful and appropriate to the situation.
  • Confidence begets respect. Use your experience and age to your advantage if you are older.
  • Be respectful, but also direct. Resist the urge to minimize or otherwise undermine your request with qualifying language. Do not apologize for asking.
  • Prioritize forging relationships with key workplace allies who support your career development.
  • If the situation is one where you are inclined to ask permission, consider whether you really need to do so. Ask yourself if your male peers would feel entitled to act without asking for permission.

As to that final point, Shilepsky recalled a situation where both male and female attorneys in a firm became parents at around the same time. The female lawyer negotiated a four-day work week with a commensurate reduction in pay, even though she worked from home on her “day off.” As to her male colleague, sometime later (after he made partner), it was discovered he had been taking off one day per week to work from home. The takeaway: men (more than women) benefit from knowing that the “rules” don’t always apply.

What Should Institutions Do to Improve the Power Imbalance for Women? 
Women cannot shoulder sole responsibility for changing stereotypical workplace dynamics, nor should they. Institutions must take conscious control in order to effectuate change. Moreover, women continue to be viewed as having primary (often sole) responsibility for children and elder care. This may minimize their apparent value to law firms and in-house departments. Institutions should use a more nuanced lens and create highly flexible work environments for lawyers (male and female) who care for children and elders. Technology can diminish concerns about working parents and eliminate the stigma mothers face for being “less committed” than their male counterparts, which should result in better parity for women. There are a number of things law firms and in-house departments can do to remove barriers for women. Here are some suggestions from our interviewees:

  • Commit to identifying and then removing gender barriers in your institution that block women’s leadership and advancement opportunities.
  • Retain an experienced consultant to examine existing practices and policies with the goal of determining where practices and policies may unconsciously be biased against women.
  • Remove subjectivity from the evaluation process. This is not a popularity contest. Rely instead on objective criteria that are neither consciously nor unconsciously biased against women.
  • Set goals, create metrics to track change, and hold leaders accountable—e.g., create a plan to address existing gender pay gaps and a strategy to avoid future gaps. Institute a system for the equitable transfer of clients so women are not disadvantaged. Devise a strategy to support women in generating business.
  • Encourage those in senior roles to mentor and sponsor women in meaningful ways, and ensure that such mentoring and sponsorship is built into the accountability structure for compensation.
  • Mandate an increased presence of women in leadership roles. Studies show that leadership diversity results in better decisions and a stronger bottom line.

Too often, female lawyers remain in the precarious position of advancing their careers while garnering social approval closely tied to expectations of how women “should” behave in the workplace. While gender expectations are shifting slowly, women, men, and the institutions for which they work should implement strategies to remove barriers to full and equal female participation in the law. It is well past time for women to take their rightful place at the table.


Linda Babcock & Sara Laschever, Ask for It: How Women Can Use the Power of Negotiation to Get What They Really Want (2008).

Linda Babcock & Sara Laschever, Women Don’t Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide (2003).

Emily T. Amanatullah & Michael W. Morris, Negotiating Gender Roles: Gender Differences in Assertive Negotiating Are Mediated by Women’s Fear of Backlash and Attenuated When Negotiating on Behalf of Others, 98 J. Personality & Soc. Psychol. 256 (2010).

Hannah Riley Bowles & Linda Babcock, How Can Women Escape the Compensation Negotiation Dilemma? Relational Accounts Are One Answer, 37 Psychol. Women Q. 80 (2013).

Hannah Riley Bowles et al., Social Incentives for Gender Differences in the Propensity to Initiate Negotiations: Sometimes It Does Hurt to Ask, 103 Organizational Behav. & Hum. Decision Processes 84 (2007).


Valerie Samuels is a partner and Catherine Lombardo is an associate with Posternak Blankstein & Lund LLP in Boston, Massachusetts.

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