June 27, 2012 Practice Points

Actionable Advice for Young Women Lawyers

By Claudia D. Hartleben

Do not get on the diversity committee at your firm. “Please don’t do it!” Victoria Pynchon, attorney-mediator and author of The Negotiation Law Blog, says in a recent video on Forbes.com, titled “How Young Women Lawyers Can Succeed at Big Law.” Why? The short answer, according to Pynchon, is that diversity committees lack power, as do hiring committees. Rather, young women should get on the finance or other committees where the true power within the organization lies.

Pynchon, who graduated law school in 1980, recounts that the contributions of her generation of women lawyers were in simply “occupying” law firms. Making their presence known, staying onboard when gender inequalities were apparent, and succeeding within the firm as much as possible. The new generation is different, Pynchon says. While today women make up a modest 15–16 percent of equity partners at AmLaw 200 firms, Pynchon urges this is a “critical mass,” sufficient to propel women to reach equal representation in equity partnership and close the leadership and income gaps in a few short years. Pynchon advises an active approach to young women lawyers, enabling growth of their careers to make new contributions and increase representation in leadership and equity partnership positions.

Here is an overview of Pynchon’s advice:

1. Pick your sponsors and mentors wisely and early. What exactly is a sponsor and how is this person different from a mentor? “A sponsor” Pynchon explains, “is someone that puts their skin in your game.” A sponsor will advocate on your behalf and voice the importance of your climbing the ranks to her fellow equity partners, but the trick lies in aptly selecting your sponsor.

2. Set sights on your eventual practice area and join relevant bar associations.Become a “worker among workers” by obtaining committee assignments and getting to know others through this capacity, Pynchon advises, because you or partners in your firm are bound to change firms during the tenure of your career.

3. Start cultivating clients. Direct, in-person meetings with the general counsel of a company are not expected from a young attorney. Nevertheless, young women lawyers can establish relationships with the junior in-house attorneys by being service-oriented and becoming the go-to person over time. Pynchon emphasizes that young women must think and act along the lines of having “your own business.”

4. Become involved with the power committees in your firm. Pynchon explains that young women lawyers can make sharper, more powerful decisions early in their career, such that by the time they have children, women are reaping the benefits of those earlier decisions. As mentioned, Pynchon argues that young women lawyers should not waste time with firm committees that lack power, but should set their sights on those committees that are within the power structure of the firm.

View an interview with Victoria Pynchon in which she provides advice to women lawyers.

Keywords: woman advocate, litigation, law firm, sponsors

Claudia D. Hartleben works at Curtis, Mallet-Prevost, Colt & Mosle LLP in Washington, D.C.

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