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Litigation Journal

Winter 2021 | Proof

Conversations We Should Be Having

Laura L Becking, Laura Metzger, Leah Patrice Sanzari, and Rachelle Navarro



  • A true crisis is transformational.
  • It reveals and exploits the hidden weaknesses that persist under the surface of any organization.
  • Organizations that meet the challenge to change in response to a crisis can emerge on the other side stronger, more responsive, and more resilient.
  • To increase the likelihood of that happening, outside counsel should start preparing for the unexpected.


Conversations We Should Be Having

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How to succeed as a female attorney is hardly a novel topic. All of us have read countless articles, attended CLEs, and had discussions with our colleagues about this very issue. Which is why I, Rachelle, was pleasantly surprised to attend a law firm event with a women’s panel that focused on issues and advice I had not heard before. The conversation was honest and personal. The advice was frank and practical. And I anticipate the impact will be long-lasting.

Here are thoughts and advice from discussions with those remarkable and successful women, both from comments at that original panel and from multiple follow-up conversations. We know of course that we do not have all the answers. We do not pretend to. As with legal advice, these ideas must be carefully considered and molded to fit each individual’s needs and circumstances. But our hope is that this will help lead to insightful evaluation, informed consideration, and wise decisions.

Here are thoughts and advice from discussions with those remarkable and successful women, both from comments at that original panel and from multiple follow-up conversations. We know of course that we do not have all the answers. We do not pretend to. As with legal advice, these ideas must be carefully considered and molded to fit each individual’s needs and circumstances. But our hope is that this will help lead to insightful evaluation, informed consideration, and wise decisions.

Make Choices, Not Sacrifices

Often a key theme in discussions focused on women is the concept of “having it all.” Those discussions tend to focus on either how to achieve that goal or on how we female attorneys must resign ourselves to the fiction of the whole idea and that sacrifices are inevitable. In our judgment, a discussion about having it all is futile. It is impossible for anyone to “have it all,” just as we cannot make both a right turn and a left turn. But that does not mean that sacrifices are inevitable. They are not. Rather than making sacrifices, we should identify, and then make, choices.

With the exception of childbirth, female lawyers face the same choices as male lawyers. But for some reason, the concept of making career sacrifices seems to be one that only women face. Perhaps that’s because of societal pressures—pressures to have a family, to be a good mother, to look a certain way.

Rather than being a passive participant to your career, driven by societal pressures, be an active decision-maker. Understand your options; consider your options; make conscious choices; be at peace with your choices. Decide what is important to you and what you value. Be honest with yourself. Ask: What does success look like for me? What do I need to do to view myself as successful? And what else do I have time for that is important to me?

Laura Becking: I have had various opportunities over the years to take on more significant roles in my career. Some I have taken and some I have not. Although on paper some of those opportunities made all the sense in the world (for example, offers of large jumps in status or compensation), at times I made conscious decisions not to take them. Many factors went into each decision. Often the predominant factor was my family. I do not view my turning down opportunities as a sacrifice; rather, it was simply a choice at a particular time. At other times, especially as my children got older, I made other choices. I hope to keep doing so.

Choices have consequences, but when well considered, they should generally not close doors forever and should not keep us up at night once they are made. I have also made choices about how I spend my personal time. Since my first child was born, I have opted not to do any formal exercise. This was an extreme choice. I went from being a person who trained 7–10 hours a week to someone who has not seen the inside of a gym for almost 13 years. Working out was always important to me. I know I’ll get back to it one day; but for now, I get the basic exercise I need with my kids spread across little time spaces throughout the day.

Educate Yourself About the Available Choices

In making career decisions, it is important first to be fully educated about the options and understand the facts. If you are inclined to turn down an opportunity because it will take up too much of your limited time, make sure you have in fact confirmed what the time commitment will be. Perhaps your assumptions are inaccurate. Be certain you understand what the path you are choosing actually is.

Laura Becking: Before having children of my own, I spent a lot of time traveling and giving presentations at conferences. I was taking four to six flights a week. I took pride in knowing the best spots in at least 15 airports around the world. That was an activity that was widely encouraged and favorably viewed internally at my firm. Having my first child forced me to carefully analyze that activity, and when I did, I noticed that the return on investment for much of my travel, especially to conferences, was actually very low. I generated very little, if any, new business from my appearances. I lost a lot of client service time and time with my family—my top two priorities. So, while my kids were very young, I made the conscious decision to take a step back from such conferences and manage my travel more efficiently.

Once you are fully educated, making affirmative decisions, rather than viewing them as making sacrifices, has several advantages. First, decisions consciously made tend to be easier to feel good about. They make us less susceptible to negative societal feedback—that we’re not devoting enough time to our careers or sufficiently committed to the firm or a present enough parent or partner. It also takes away that internal “it’s not fair” nag. Make each decision for yourself.

Second, decisions are not necessarily permanent. Remember that a career path does not have to be linear. The choices we make do not have to be “No; forever no.” Instead, the choice may be “No, not right now, but perhaps later.” Unconscious choices and sacrifices feel like accidents, and accidents are not reversible. But conscious choices are subject to being revisited and revised or reversed later.

Laura Becking: After I made partner, I opted not to be extensively involved in my children’s extracurricular school community for parent-teacher association meetings, bake sales, and the like. The first five years after becoming partner are incredibly important in terms of development and progression of one’s career. That is the time to put in extra billable hours and client-facing time. In the years since that, after I had established a steady client base, I was able to slowly revisit my involvement in my children’s school activities.

Third, not only are choices not permanent, they also should be constantly evolving. As your circumstances evolve and you continually reevaluate your values and priorities, your choices evolve too. Sometimes it seems that once you make a choice, you are stuck in it. That’s not true. What was the right decision under one set of facts and circumstances may no longer make sense when things change. Nothing is forever. Do not be afraid to reevaluate and adapt.

Laura Becking: I started my legal career at EY Legal and made partner relatively young. I thought that was it. But then Sarbanes-Oxley was passed, and I could no longer practice law at EY. I was forced to examine what I wanted to do next. At the time, I already had one child, and although I had many offers to be partner at various firms, I decided that my priorities were to rebuild and expand my practice and focus on being a mother. With those priorities in mind, I decided to look for a firm that would be supportive of this, where I could join as of counsel. It was only after my children were older that I then reconsidered my role, decided I could make the commitment to be a partner again, and approached my firm for support. But I easily could have gotten stuck in my role as of counsel. Had I not made the conscious decision to change, it probably would not have happened. To be clear, it didn’t happen on an island—supportive leadership and excellent mentorship at my current firm were mission critical.

Even if you have had a more linear career trajectory, there are still choices to be made. Do not approach each day on autopilot. Reevaluate your options and approaches and make changes if the conclusion is not what you want it to be. Also remember that it’s always possible to make a choice, pursue a path, and achieve it, but then be disappointed. It’s possible to make partner, get that promotion, or accomplish a goal, and still be dissatisfied. It might not be like what you thought it would be like. It might not be right for you. But that does not mean it was a mistake. The mistake will be in not making the choice to do something about it.

It is also important to communicate your values and decisions honestly to others, including your family and friends and your colleagues and supervisors. Once you have made decisions about what is important to you, be at peace with your decision. Set clear expectations about what you are willing and able to bring to the table and what you are not. Be yourself.

Laura Metzger: People are different, but everyone still needs to feel comfortable being themselves. One friend appropriately called me an “over-sharer.” It was one of the most insightful comments anyone ever made about me. But it is core to how I form relationships, how I work best, how I feel valued, and how I make others feel valued. I am fortunate to be at a firm where being myself and being personal is embraced. I would not be as successful in a different environment. Even when the professional aspects of the job seem great, if you feel like you are constantly hiding yourself from your colleagues, that can create an underlying stress on your ultimate advancement.

Be a Master of Efficiency

All the most successful female lawyers we know share one characteristic—they are masters of efficiency. This comes in part from keeping track of time and being conscious of how long it takes to do certain tasks, a skill they use not only in their professional life, but also in their personal life. We recommend not only being conscious of what you do with your time, but also evaluating how much time you spend on your activities and how effective each activity is toward reaching your goal. If something takes a lot of time with little return, scrap it.

Laura Metzger: For me, this means making big choices about how I spend my personal time; and rather than spreading it out over many different interests, I often consolidate. Opposite of Laura Becking, I make exercise a top priority, in part because I see so much efficiency in it. I can exercise early in the morning, before I need to be at work or before my children need my attention. Starting my day with exercise gives me energy and focus that I use in my other activities throughout the day, and it allows me to better handle stress. I’ve also had to make choices about how I spend my time at work. Junior female partners are often a natural target for administrative work or practice group roles. Some of those tasks are inescapable, but try to approach each of them with a view toward how they can directly benefit you and, often more importantly, how they can indirectly benefit you as well.

The opportunities may not always be obvious. For example, if you are the staffing partner for your group, there are many ways to benefit from that, including better access for your own staffing needs, developing relationships with your more senior partners when they have to ask you for things, and having a say in hiring decisions. Or, if you are the partner responsible for giving reviews to associates, you’ll develop the skill set of having difficult conversations, which is a necessary skill of any effective leader and often a hard one to develop.

For me, I saw the biggest personal benefit that translated into financial reward from involvement in lateral partner recruiting. To be effective when meeting with lateral candidates, I had to learn a lot about my firm and our offerings, to both evaluate and sell to a lateral partner candidate. By selling to partner candidates over and over again, I was—without even knowing it—practicing the art of selling to clients. I also was selling not just my practice area but many others within the firm. The end benefit is that I am a more effective business developer and originate meaningful revenue by cross-selling my partners in other practice areas.

Have Kids When You Want to, If You Want To

The reproductive choices about whether and when to have kids are among the most important choices any of us makes. They’re also deeply personal. Even for career-driven women, they are not decisions that should be determined by one’s career or take a backseat to one’s career. Your decisions about children should be driven by your desires, not by what you believe is most beneficial to your career.

Laura Metzger: I had my first child as a sixth-year associate and immediately convinced myself I should wait to have my second until I made partner. At the time, I had little confidence in the “system” that an associate who was pregnant or who took two maternity leaves could ever make partner on a normal time frame. Looking back now, it’s hard not to think that I was wrong. As I exited my partner interview with our law firm’s chair, the next candidate waiting outside was eight-months pregnant with her second child. And when I stood on stage at my first partner meeting six weeks later, she was not there—but not because she hadn’t made partner; rather, because she just had delivered her son. That experience also confirmed for me that I was a partner at the right firm.

For those lawyers who are unsure of when the timing might be best, modern-day science has provided tools that give us greater flexibility, control, and prerogative. Educate yourself about those tools and think carefully about whether and when you should use them.

Leah Sanzari: I did not understand earlier in my career the difficulties one could face when trying to get pregnant. I never realized that focusing on building my career as a young attorney could mean that pursuing a family at a later stage could be significantly harder. I wish someone had explained to me at the time that options such as freezing my eggs were available to me and could really help me in the future. To a young attorney, freezing eggs can offer flexibility in both the present and the future, and thereby prevent struggles and difficulties in both the present and the future.

It’s good that we women are having this conversation more openly now. I am incredibly blessed to be the mother of an amazing, beautiful boy, but I was not able to have additional children. Freezing eggs involves time, money, and emotional and physical work. The decisions about having children are not to be taken lightly; nor should anyone feel pressured into conformity. If there is any chance that you may want children in the future, taking the step of freezing your eggs may provide you with the opportunity to do so when you decide the time is right. But do not be afraid to make having a family a priority. You can still have children and be a rock star in your career. And it’s important that where you work supports you on this.

Extricate Yourself from Those Who Aren’t Supportive

One thing that sets women apart is our greater tendency toward resolution. From our observations and experiences, we see that when faced with a problem or conflict, particularly with someone at our own firm, women—far more so than men—tend to put in extra effort to resolve that conflict. There are times, however, when a person, supervisor, or colleague just is not going to be your supporter. It’s most efficient for you to simply extract yourself from that person.

Laura Becking: There have been times in my career when I have had to cut my losses and extricate myself from a work relationship that was not supportive. When I was very junior, a senior male partner at my then firm was appointed as my mentor. Although I made conscious efforts to reach out to my mentor, he never actually spoke to me. At most, he sometimes gave me a handwritten markup of a document. I finally asked another colleague if I perhaps had done something wrong. My colleague told me that I shouldn’t worry or take it personally; that male partner, I was told, does not speak to any women. I immediately decided I needed to get away from that relationship.

When I have told this story throughout the years, people sometimes ask me whether I should have tried to address the issue with the male partner. After all, that he did not speak to women affected more than just me; it affected every woman who worked for him then and every woman who would work for him in the future. With the benefit of hindsight, I think that is an unfair question. Asking a young female attorney to stick it out in a less-than-productive situation and fix the problem puts the burden unfairly on the wrong person. I just needed to move away. I was also very alive to the power dynamic and risk of confrontation. Today I might take a different route, but at the time, it was the sensible choice.

If you find yourself in a situation from which you need to remove yourself, remember not to get bogged down in the “why” of it all. Don’t let your perception that someone is not a supporter be a reflection on you. Asking yourself why the partner, supervisor, or colleague does not like you is only a distraction and can only make you feel bad. There are colleagues with whom you will have stronger relationships and there are colleagues with whom you will have less strong relationships. Focus on developing the strong ones and remain cordial with the others.

And remember: During all the time that you spend trying to figure out why the other person does not like you or trying to fix that person, there is another attorney running past you toward the goal that you ultimately desire. At the end of the day, we return to the concept of making conscious decisions. Just as we choose our friends, we can choose our work colleagues. If a colleague or supervisor is unhelpful, and you have evaluated the situation and determined it is not a fight that can be won, leave.

See the Forest, Not the Trees

Your career is long. There are going to be periods that are fulfilling and terrific and other periods that are hard and difficult. In the long term, your career should be worthwhile. Don’t let the hard times cloud your judgment about the long term.

Leah Sanzari: There have been very many times when I have felt buried and questioned what I am doing, including times when my life partner has been less than happy with me. Yet, when I take a step back and look at what my career has brought me and my family—intellect, camaraderie, self-pride, flexibility, as well as a beautiful life—those positives far outweigh, and help get me through, the hard times.

Always remember your ultimate objectives and long-term goals. As long as you can honestly say that your present circumstances will help you to get there, see the bigger picture. See the forest.

Make Allies and Mentees Among Your Male Colleagues

Nicholas Kristof and his wife Sheryl WuDunn wrote an entire book about how women hold up half the sky. But the counterpart is also true: if women hold up half the sky, then men hold up the other half. And, in fact, given the current demographics in the legal world, men actually hold up more than their half of the sky. If we choose not to engage with our male colleagues, or do not bring them along to support our success, we are ignoring a majority of the legal world who can be our allies. Most of the men we work with are good lawyers and fantastic supporters of women. Do not make the mistake of excluding them. Don’t assume they will not be supportive. The reality of the current legal profession is that the majority of leadership roles are filled by men. We risk too much by assuming we cannot rely on those colleagues.

Laura Metzger: Historically, the biggest supporters for advancing my career have been middle-aged white men. Probably because that’s who I viewed as powerful, and that’s with whom I aligned myself to benefit from their tailwinds. And probably because there were no female options at the time. But that’s not the case anymore. So the demographics of my supporters have changed.

Moreover, while much has been written about the imperativeness of women lawyers to mentor younger female lawyers—and that is true—it is equally important for women lawyers to also befriend, mentor, and be mentored by male lawyers. If we as women lawyers feel that there are things that we bring to the table that, for some reason, our male colleagues seem to be omitting, we should pass on those work traits.

Rachelle Navarro: Over the years, when I have been one of the supervising attorneys on fairly large teams, I have made conscious efforts to take tangible steps toward showing appreciation for the more junior attorneys’ work, whether by planning a dinner, ordering in lunch, or organizing a happy hour. I learned to do that because, when I was a junior attorney, I worked for fantastic female attorneys who also made it a priority. I saw the value those small acts had in creating a productive work environment. But I also have noticed that planning such events has generally fallen on female attorneys, even when there are co-supervising male attorneys.

At one point, I thought about no longer planning such events because I worried it reinforced gender-imbalanced roles at work, by which women attorneys tend to be responsible for the administrative or organizational tasks. But then I realized that would be the wrong approach. I should not stop doing things that create a collegial, productive work environment just because my male colleagues do not often do the same. Rather, I should encourage, and perhaps outright ask, my male colleagues to do it. And, in fact, when I have done so, it has been received positively.

Also, having men as mentees is a valuable way to make issues traditionally seen as “women issues” become “work issues” instead, which is a healthy development.

Rachelle Navarro: When I first became pregnant, I was a senior associate working with many junior associates, both male and female. During my pregnancy, I spoke freely and indiscriminately with both my male and female colleagues (including those whom I was supervising and mentoring) about the importance of maternity leave within the context of parental leave. I also spoke openly about my career concerns related to maternity leave—e.g., how to remain involved prior to having a baby and the best way to set myself up for success upon my return to work. Both sexes appreciating the complexities of parental leave benefits everyone.

Be Transparent About Struggles Even After Achieving Partnership

The struggles for female attorneys do not stop once you become partner. Often we talk about advice to female attorneys and then couch it in terms of what one should do to make partner. But the conversation does not and should not stop at the door of partnership. Once women become partners, they do not necessarily talk often about the continuing issues and challenges they face. But honest conversations must continue. In fact, the most helpful advice and mentoring relationships are usually developed around what the challenges are at the next stage in a career trajectory. If senior partners do not share what those challenges may be with the junior partners who follow, all of us will be in the dark.

Laura Metzger: There were several difficulties that I faced after becoming partner that surprised me. One of the first was a sense that I had lost my purpose. The hardest part about making partner was making partner. Having had the goal to make partner and then achieving that goal was great, but then what? Once the goal was gone, even though it was gone because I had achieved it, I found it incredibly hard to stay motivated and focused. It took me maybe a year to realize that I always needed a goal and to set a new one. Luckily, at that point I had been handed a “deputy” leadership role that I found interesting, so I set the goal that within five years I no longer would be the deputy, but rather the number one.

Then I set revenue targets for myself, which was much more effective than being told I had to meet certain revenue expectations. And then I set compensation goals for myself, which meant not only having to achieve the revenue but also needing to be truly accretive to the firm across all metrics and, probably the hardest part, beginning to advocate for myself.

Another hard part about making partner is that it is a different job than being an associate. It takes quite a bit of adjustment. We make partner because people think we can do it, but there is an entire new skill set to learn. Much of that needs to be learned on the job, but it can be helpful to talk about it.

Sometimes we get great advice but forget to take it in. Other times, we get great advice and automatically apply it without first considering whether it’s really the best advice for us. Neither is helpful.

Our hope is that, having read our advice, you’ll consider it thoughtfully. Internalize what’s beneficial. Modify where appropriate. And disregard what’s not right for you.