Advice from Women Who Have Excelled in the Profession

Josephine Bahn
The Margaret Brent Award recognizes the women lawyers who have excelled in their field  and paved the way to success for other women lawyers.

The Margaret Brent Award recognizes the women lawyers who have excelled in their field and paved the way to success for other women lawyers.

FatCamera via iStock

Harking back to the first female lawyer in America, Margaret Brent (arriving in the colonies in 1638), the American Bar Association’s Margaret Brent Award “recognizes and celebrates the accomplishments of women lawyers who have excelled in their field and have paved the way to success for other women lawyers.” Despite Margaret Brent’s early start, the progress of female attorneys in the United States crawled along for decades. Even now, nearly 400 years later, we continue to see significant “firsts” for women in the law.

It took more than 200 years after Margaret Brent’s arrival for a woman to be admitted to practice law in the United States (Arabella Mansfield, admitted in 1869). After another 59 years, the first female lawyer was appointed to serve on a US federal court (Honorable Genevieve Cline, in 1928). Fifty-three years later, the Honorable Sandra Day O’Connor was the first female appointed to the US Supreme Court (1981). It was not until the 1990s that the first female US attorney general and president of the American Bar Association were appointed (1993 and 1995, respectively).

And the firsts keep coming in the twenty-first century. In 2011, the Northern District of New York welcomed its first female judge (Honorable Mae A. D’Agostino). The Western District of New York welcomed theirs two years later in 2013 (Honorable Elizabeth A. Wolford). In 2017, Alabama welcomed its first female acting attorney general (Alice Martin). In 2018, Megan Ring became the first female Colorado State public defender. And, in 2019, Jeannine Pacioni became the first female to serve as district attorney for Monterey County, California.

But the glass ceiling is far from shattered. Here, we turn to five past Margaret Brent Award winners, recognized for their excellence and role in paving the way for future female lawyers, for advice on continuing to make an impact, promoting inclusion, and succeeding in the legal profession.

Linda Klein

Linda Klein

Linda Klein (LK) was honored as a Margaret Brent Award winner in 2004 and served as the 140th president of the American Bar Association in 2016–2017. She is currently the senior managing shareholder at Baker Donelson Bearman Caldwell & Berkowitz in Atlanta, Georgia. LK earned her J.D. at Washington & Lee Law School in Virginia, and her B.A. at Union College in New York.

Paulette Brown

Paulette Brown

Paulette Brown (PB) was honored as a Margaret Brent Award winner in 2011 and served as the 139th president of the American Bar Association in 2015–2016, the first woman of color to hold that position. She is currently a member of the labor & employment practice group of Locke Lord LLP in New Jersey. PB earned her J.D. at Seton Hall University School of Law in New Jersey, and her B.A. at Howard University in Washington, DC.

Roberta Liebenberg

Roberta Liebenberg

Roberta Liebenberg (RL) was honored as a Margaret Brent Award winner in 2016. She is currently a senior partner at Fine Kaplan and Black in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. RL earned her J.D. at Catholic University Columbus School of Law in Washington, DC, and her B.A. at the University of Michigan.

Lauren Stiller Rikleen

Lauren Stiller Rikleen

Lauren Stiller Rikleen (LR) was honored as a Margaret Brent Award winner in 2017. She is the founder and president of the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership. LR earned her J.D. at Boston College Law School and her B.A. at Brandeis University in Massachusetts.

Eileen Letts

Eileen Letts

Eileen Letts (EL) was honored as a Margaret Brent Award winner in 2018. She is currently a partner at Zuber Lawler in Chicago, Illinois. LR earned her J.D. at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, and her B.A. at The Ohio State University.

Making an Impact

LK: Be present and volunteer to do the jobs that don't pay in dollars, but do make a huge difference. Pro bono work helps solve problems in access to justice. You will be recognized in your community and appreciated. Bar service also is a way to work with many others to create change where needed. Together you can propose new laws, new rules, or end bad practices. The bar is the bully pulpit that magnifies your voice. Your years of practice do not limit your license and your creativity. Keep in mind that the principal author of the 25th Amendment to the US Constitution was a young lawyer named John Feerick.

PB: Always have a sense of self and community. First, be the very best lawyer you can be so that you can help others. Push through the (negative) noise.

RL: To make a real impact on the profession, it is critical as a young lawyer to identify issues that you are truly passionate about and work on those issues in bar associations or other organizations on the national, state, or local levels. For example, when I began my career in the mid-1970s, women were just entering the legal profession in larger numbers. We faced both explicit and implicit biases with respect to hiring, assignments, compensation, and also experienced considerable difficulty in finding mentors and sponsors. Therefore, I felt a personal responsibility to support other women lawyers and help them advance and succeed. I became involved in the American Bar Association (ABA) as well as the Philadelphia and Pennsylvania Bar Associations and focused on the development and implementation of various initiatives to provide concrete and specific best practices, strategies, and model policies to create parity and equal treatment for women. Unfortunately, despite the fact that women have comprised almost half of law school graduates for several decades, progress has been unacceptably slow, and women are still grossly underrepresented in the ranks of equity partners, members of key law firm committees, firm chairs, and leads on deals and first chairs in litigation matters. All lawyers (young and old) must act with a sense of urgency to make the legal profession more diverse and inclusive and to effectuate the significant changes that are long overdue to create the level playing field that all women and attorneys of color deserve.

LR: Every lawyer has an opportunity to make an impact on the profession, and there are more ways to do this than there is space to answer. I think the best place to start is through active engagement in a bar association. The ABA, for example, offers myriad ways to make a difference. The ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice (I am a former chair) has a large committee structure that covers a wide range of critical social justice issues and welcomes the participation of young lawyers. Similarly, other sections offer many opportunities for young lawyer engagement in important areas of our justice system. In addition, state, local, and affinity bar associations are always seeking young lawyers to help with projects and to develop as young leaders.

Young lawyers can also contribute by participating in community organizations that serve populations in need. Many local organizations seek to involve lawyers on their boards or on key committees. This may not directly affect the profession itself, but when lawyers engage in this way, they help illustrate the ways in which our profession continually gives back.

The fact is, every young lawyer can contribute. The best way to start is to seek opportunities that align with your goals and interests. By engaging selflessly, you will be amazed at how much you will learn and benefit from your experiences.

EL: The first thing a young lawyer must do is become involved. Work is not everything, and I found that getting involved in bar associations as a young lawyer has been invaluable. I met some of my best friends in the ABA and other bar associations. It is important to learn what is going on in the profession, and it is the place to make an impact.

Promoting Inclusion

LK: Be a model of inclusive behavior, especially in the workplace. At the office, suggest diverse lawyers for important projects and meetings. Don't be afraid to suggest yourself! The ABA has been a leader on diversity and inclusion in recent years. Take advantage of all the programs and materials the ABA offers to educate everyone around you. We are relying on young lawyers to ensure the legal profession moves from least to most diverse. Please think about how you can make a difference and do at least one action to advance diversity and inclusion every day.

PB: First conduct a self-analysis. Learn what hidden biases you may have, actualize them and don’t make decisions based on any bias(es). Then, speak up for those who have been deemed or rendered "invisible."

RL: All lawyers, regardless of age or gender, need to take several critical steps to make our profession more diverse and inclusive.

First, we must speak up. For instance, if you hear a woman lawyer being criticized as too aggressive, strident or emotional, or if you witness a man being given credit for an idea first raised by a woman, call out these double standards and advocate on the woman’s behalf. If you personally encounter implicit biases or experience other unfair treatment, don’t just shrug it off. Figure out a strategy to combat it, such as enlisting the support of influential mentors or others in your organization.

Second, we must harness the energy behind the #MeToo movement to speak out against sexual harassment and all other instances of discrimination and unfair treatment. At the same time, we must counteract the growing backlash by some male partners and clients, who are increasingly unwilling to have one-on-one meetings or go on business trips with women attorneys out of fear that these interactions might be misinterpreted. We must be vigilant not to allow this to happen because it would deprive women of important opportunities necessary for their success.

Third, we must rebut the pervasive notion that women lawyers must “lean in,” become more ambitious, or receive special training in business development. This is a false narrative. In truth, we have leaned in plenty, so much so that all of us risk tipping over, but we have still been left out far too often.

Also, we must act up. We have been way too patient in accepting the status quo. We must demand the types of structural changes that will ensure that women attain positions of real power and influence and compensation commensurate with our male colleagues. Indeed, engaging men to become catalysts for change is imperative to move the needle for greater diversity and inclusiveness.

And, finally, we need a critical mass of women in the room when key decisions that profoundly impact our careers are being made. As the expression goes, if you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re probably on the menu.

LR: Young lawyers have a unique opportunity to ensure a more diverse and inclusive profession. Millennials will soon be 50 percent of the workforce, and the legal profession is seeking ways to retain younger talent. If young lawyers work together, they have an opportunity to exercise their demographic power through a coordinated approach. But the key is to work together—diversity should not be the sole responsibility of historically excluded groups. I am optimistic that, by working within their organizations, speaking with a coordinated voice, seeking the support of internal allies, and having patience and understanding throughout the process, young men and women can make a greater difference than preceding generations have in creating a truly diverse and inclusive workplace culture.

EL: You need to think of others who look like you and encourage them to get involved. If there are several lawyers of color involved in committees, it will be hard for someone to say, “I couldn’t find anyone.” You or others will already be at the table. We also must push for it; we lawyers of color have to bring others with us to help make it more inclusive, and when asked for names, give the names of lawyers of color to those in leadership.

Succeeding in the Profession

LK: Take on the toughest assignments and do them well. Success will help build your reputation in a firm, at the courthouse, and in your bar and community organizations. Ask for help when you need it. Lawyers, especially at the ABA, are very generous with their time.

PB: Don't be shy about asking questions.

RL: It is important to develop a niche practice and to perfect your legal skills in that area. You also need to develop a reputation as the “go-to” lawyer in that particular field. Pursue writing and speaking opportunities and request to work on high-profile matters for important clients and partners, which will give you visibility within your firm and your community. It will also ultimately enhance your ability to attract clients directly and through referrals from other lawyers.

You must not be afraid to take a risk and try something new. This may entail venturing into new practice areas or even leaving your job if you are dissatisfied or stymied in your current practice. I have always found that change, although daunting, can be a very good thing, and often your career unfolds in positive ways that you could not have foreseen. By being flexible, proactive, and receptive to change, you will create new opportunities to advance and succeed on your own terms.

Finding the right mentor is often instrumental to achieving success. The key is to find a mentor who can help you to develop your legal skills, ensure that you are exposed to a broad spectrum of work assignments, introduce you to clients, and provide guidance and insight on the culture and politics of your workplace. Most importantly, a good mentor will advocate on your behalf as you work toward your goals—whether it be partnership or other forms of advancement. To fill those different roles, you may need to seek out several mentors, both male and female, and both within and outside your employer.

Also, it is never too early to give other women a hand and to champion them. You should tout the success of the women lawyers with whom you work, recommend a woman lawyer to be a speaker or write an article, and work with women to help them gain leadership positions in bar associations or other organizations. We should leverage our collective power to create a profession in which all of us will have an equal opportunity to realize our goals and aspirations and achieve both personal and professional fulfillment.

LR: Most careers will span decades, so it is important to be engaged with the work you do and ensure that you stay responsible for your own career. That means if you want to change into a different area of the law, you will need to position yourself for a change. How you do that will depend on your specific work environment and whether opportunities exist internally or elsewhere. Similarly, if you feel a raise is appropriate, then educate yourself about your firm’s or organization’s compensation system as part of developing your strategy for requesting an increase. If becoming a judge interests you, learn about the background of some of the judges that you admire in your community to understand how they got there. Most senior professionals—including judges—are willing to have conversations with younger professionals to help provide career advice. All you usually have to do is ask and be flexible as to whether a phone call or an office visit or meeting for coffee will work best (and be comfortable asking more than once—most people appreciate the reminder).

EL: We are all responsible in a large part for our own careers. Sometimes things happen that we don’t foresee, but for the most part, we are responsible for our careers. I don’t believe in being pushy, but I do believe you have to ask for what you want. If you want a particular assignment that you know is right for you, then ask for it. You can’t assume that someone else knows what you want out of your career if you haven’t told them. Be assertive; let others in leadership know what you want and go after it. If you want a raise, ask for it. If you want to change areas of practice, ask for it. Do the research before asking; be ready to answer any questions; ask for what you want. You have to ask.

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Josephine Bahn

Josephine Bahn is an attorney with the FDIC in Washington, DC.