No Limits

How Do Women Navigate The Legal Profession?

Kelly-Anne Clarke
There is no perfect blend or magical formula to provide the ideal work-life balance.  But there are ways to find harmony between the office and home.

There is no perfect blend or magical formula to provide the ideal work-life balance. But there are ways to find harmony between the office and home.

During the ABA Fall Conference in October 2018, the ABA No Limits Campaign hosted a panel where women leading in the legal profession—and the ABA—shared their experiences in the legal profession and tips for other young, women attorneys. Here Kelly-Anne Clarke, a former ABA YLD Chair and Assistant Vice-President and Senior Legal Counsel at a Fortune 10 Company, responds to questions posed during the panel.

What are some legal issues that are directly impacting young female attorneys in the day to day practice of law, membership in professional or community organizations, or at home?

Women attorneys today are facing many of the same issues we have always faced—balancing work and family, finding our own voice, gaining respect in the workplace and positively impacting the community.

One of the biggest issues we face is false expectation set by others and ourselves.  We seek work-life balance and fool ourselves into thinking there is such a thing. There isn’t—at least not in the way we envision it. There is no perfect blend or magical work formula to provide the ideal work-life balance.  The solution?  Let go of the guilt, accept that there won’t be “balance,” but there can be harmony.  

Sometimes work demands everything we have so family suffers—think a trial or a big deal closing. At other times, family needs 100% of our focus—think death or birth. In these times there is no balance.  In those times while we are giving everything to one part of our life, we find a way to make sure the other parts are addressed to some degree through delegation, simplification and sheer will power.  If we apply those same standards to the everyday juggling of activities, we could create harmony.

  • Delegate: Hire a housekeeper.  Let your child do age-appropriate chores.  Ask your partner for help (and let them do things their way) or call on a friend that has offered umpteen times (“impose” as you call it in your head but they don’t). Use technology to help get things done. 
  • Simplify: Do you really need to attend every social event? If the kids participated in one less activity, will they still be well-rounded?  As you juggle, figure out which things are glass balls and which are rubber balls. Glass balls are the special things that can’t be missed; when dropped, you can’t do them again. Rubber balls are things you can miss because those balls bounce. Consider this you don’t have to go to every practice or rehearsal (rubber ball) but you can’t miss the championship game or the performance (glass ball). 

Working your life like you would work your job can help you find the harmony. We have to find the power to forgive ourselves and accept we can’t be great at everything (at the same time), nor should we be. We can’t let perfection get in the way of a good job. And anyone you see who “has it all” is fooling you and themselves! 

What are some ways that male counterparts can help create a more equal setting for their female colleagues?

A simple truth is that men and women behave differently in some circumstances. Men can help women in the profession by appreciating the behavioral differences and providing women opportunities that play to their individual strengths. Studies show that when asked who can help on a project, a male associate is more likely to raise their hand with absolutely no knowledge of the substance.  A woman is more likely to wait, do some research on the issue and then volunteer to assist.

Recognizing this difference in how genders may respond allows both associates to have a chance at a key project. 

The legal profession is stronger when we all recognize that family is important to both genders. Men and women should have meaningful time to raise the next generation. While everyone agrees that the work needs to be done, new and creative ways of getting the work done should be considered and encouraged.  Young men can support female attorneys by helping to change the dialogue on work and family issues by listening and supporting the ideas of their female colleagues.

What piece (or pieces) of advice would you have liked to know prior to becoming a practicing female attorney?

When I was a young lawyer I wish I had certain advice (and still need to listen to myself today!).  Listen to the voice in your head that says, “You can do anything.”  Because you can.  Haven’t you always figured out a way to make things work. So why wouldn’t you raise your hand like the male associate discussed above and figure out how to make it work later?  I wonder what would have happened if I did that as a young associate?  If you are like I was, I hope you try it. 

Ask for what you want.  But don’t just make demands without having a plan and an understanding the parameters of where you work.  You can’t go to court hearings from your house.  If you are in a two-person shop, maybe part-time won’t work for the firm, but allowing you to work remotely or odd hours might get your mission accomplished.  

Always do your best work and be prepared.  I had an associate that brought me a trial brief with blanks in the fact section.  I asked him why were there blanks and he said because that was “readily available information.”  Exasperated, I said, “Well go readily avail yourself of them.  Which one of us do you think is supposed to look those up?  And the fact that we are preparing for trial and you don’t know them off hand, is troubling.” Don’t be that guy.

Find your highest and best use. That is a real estate term for using land for its best ability.  You wouldn’t put a house in a strip mall.  Why would you do a practice of law that isn’t suited to you? Figure out what you are good at and do that. Your job satisfaction and performance will increase immensely.  You may still have to do things that are not suited to you, but you will perform those better knowing that you shine at X, Y or Z.

Always be yourself.  Being someone else is exhausting.  Maybe that is why you are so tired. 

What are some tangible ways the ABA YLD can help create a more inclusive and equal work environment for female and minority attorneys?

The ABA YLD can continue listening to its membership and learning from the lessons of the past. The YLD needs to continue fighting for equality and continue finding ways to balance the scales. Having real dialogue on these issues, like this No Limits project, allows the YLD to learn what its members need.

Kelly-Ann F. Clarke

Kelly-Ann F. Clarke has been practicing law since 2000.  She has served as a partner of a law firm and is currently in-house as an Assistant Vice President, Senior Legal Counsel at a Fortune 10 company.  She continues to serve as a leader in local, state and national bar associations, including having served as Chair of the ABA YLD in 2009-2010.  She has a passion for diversity and helping young lawyers navigate the profession.