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At the 2013 ABA Annual Meeting in San Francisco, a panel of women from diverse legal backgrounds discussed the critical skills necessary to achieve a successful career in law at “Leadership After 25 Years: Solutions for Equality.”
The panelists shared how their own experiences have taught them six core lessons that can help future legal leaders.
1. Become a risk-taker and seize the opportunities that come your way.
“Don’t be afraid of failing,” said Ellen Rosenblum, attorney general of the state of Oregon. “I would not be sitting here today as the first woman attorney general of Oregon if I had not unsuccessfully run for president of the American Bar Association last year.” Rosenblum believes that the “fear factor” is there, but no lawyer should let that hold them back.
Nan Duffly, who serves as judge on the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, agreed with Rosenblum, and stressed that leadership requires perseverance. “You have to be willing to risk things,” said Duffly. “You have to learn to fail and be ready to fail.” Duffly shared her amazement of how many times people have stopped trying after they failed to get appointed to their dream position, and reported it took six attempts for her to get appointed.
For Claudia Williams, seizing new opportunities have caused other people to label her “impulsive,” but has allowed her to become an equity partner a law firm and later join the Hershey Company as senior counsel. “I wanted to carve my own path in the legal world,” said Williams. “I’ve always tried to do what I’ve felt was the right thing for me.” But Williams reminded the audience to take a calculated approach to risk-taking, in order to understand what the alternatives are and what is at stake.
2. Have a positive attitude
Keeping an idealistic viewpoint was important for many of the panelists. “My parents taught me great values, and they never wanted me to be a bitter person. They wanted me to be positive about life,” said Vikki Pryor, a principal at Change Create Transform. Pryor referenced the excitement that can be witnessed at a kindergarten class, and how it is unfortunate that at some point that enthusiasm for life is lost.
3. Speak up for yourself
After Rosenblum retired from the bench, she took a similar approach to launching her campaign, despite the surprise and lack of support for her candidacy. “No one called me and said ‘Ellen you ought to run for attorney general.’” Rosenblum said. “You need to make those calls yourself.”
“Honestly, most of my advancement was because I raised my hand,” said Pryor. “I often took on assignments and work that others didn’t want. I saw it as an opportunity.” For Williams, she doesn’t have to be told to speak up, but rather when to shut up, but she attributes that comfort with speaking out as being an important ingredient to reaching her goals. “For me it’s about making sure that (young lawyers) know they have a voice, and if they don’t use that voice somebody else is going to use their voice and walk right by them.”
4. Know and accept yourself
“If I were to describe what I was doing to you I would realize I was being myself,” Duffly explained when looking back on how she advanced in her career. “I’m a person who listens…People felt comfortable with me. I didn’t need to talk about sports. I didn’t need to be a guy in a guy’s world.” For Williams, who was taught how to fish and golf from her father at an early age, playing in the guy’s world meant having to ignore the stereotypes and then prove her place nine holes or one catch at a time.
5. Help others
Through her family’s influence, and the sponsoring and mentoring Duffly received along the course of her career, she realized the importance of paying the assistance forward. For Duffly, the law was “that opportunity for me to give back.”
“I believe that every human being makes an impact,” said Pryor. “We are in a profession because our profession touches every person at some point in their life. We, especially as women lawyers, can impact people in a way that helps them to see they can have an impact.” As a leader and ABA member for 35 years, it is important to Pryor to empower others and create an environment that allows everyone to succeed.
6. Enjoy the roller-coaster ride of career and family
“It’s your journey, it’s your ride, it’s your life,” Pryor told the audience. Pryor encouraged women to ignore the inner voices of doubt and judgment that hold them back from experiencing the excitement and unpredictability of the path they have chosen.
After leaving the legal workforce to raise her two daughters, Williams was eager to return to the career and dive in but also knew the importance of being a presence in her childrens’ lives. So when Williams’ daughter posed the question, “Would you rather chase your career or get married and start a family?” Williams’ daughter knew her answer would be: “All of the above.” A member of the audience added that “there are rubber balls and there are glass balls. Just figure out what balls can be dropped.”
“Leadership After 25 Years: Solutions for Equality,” was sponsored by the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession.