January 2011 | Glass Ceiling or Hot Air?

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Dealing With Obstacles That Women Face Along the Career Path  

Edited By John D. Bowers

We asked women members of the ABA Law Practice Management Section for advice on suggested approaches to surmount barriers women may face when it comes to career advancement. The response resounded, "Do not accept the glass ceiling!" Read on to find out what they prescribe.

The final question in our Editorial Board’s survey of women members of the ABA’s Law Practice Management Section requested advice for fellow women attorneys in overcoming a glass ceiling. Clearly there is no silver bullet solution. Further, the guidance given is laced with the reality of each respondents’ personal experience, be it positive or negative. Overall I was very impressed by the depth of guidance given as well as the candor provided by the 110 respondents to this question.

“Get a Big Sledge Hammer”

Staying with the glass ceiling metaphor, some form of this approach was suggested by 14 respondents. Whether asking “…for more money, because men aren’t afraid to,” or “constantly ask for chances to go to court” our survey yielded a variety of calls to “buckle up and bear down like a man... put your softness aside and be prepared to work harder than the men.” Advice included adopting an assertive, proactive approach to take “the value you bring… to firm leaders – loudly and often” and “insist on being measured by quantitative factors whenever possible.” “Call it when you see it and don’t shirk from pointing out the unfairness when it happens,” suggests a respondent. Another encourages her counterparts to “find the balance between being assertive and coming off as pushy.”

Hang Out a Shingle

Thirteen respondents suggested that starting a solo practice or small firm with a trusted colleague is a sure fire way to overcome the glass ceiling: “the smaller the group, the harder it is to have a glass ceiling.” Along the lines of “a less regimented law firm is likely to give a woman more power,” one respondent suggests that “there is little that can be done unless women join or start firms that understand the work-life balance… [After starting a firm, my] responsibilities at work are balanced with home and school responsibilities [with] two young children.” Still another points out that “in a business of your own, there is no glass ceiling that must be overcome and no restraint on how far you can go or succeed.” Lisa Harris Jones agrees and lays out a practical framework in this issue of Law Practice Today

“Be Consistently Persistent”

Neatly encapsulated by one our respondents, nine other respondents agreed. Being “competitive on business terms” and doing “good, consistent work” seems to have paid off for at least some women in the profession. “Do your job efficiently and correctly the first time,” implores one while another suggests, “be patient, present your case or idea and be prepared to support it. Within time the organization may change or come to acknowledge your contribution.” One respondent puts it this way: “Insist that your bosses and mentors give you very tough and very specific feedback about your job performance and work-related issues. There is strong evidence that male bosses don’t like to give female subordinates tough feedback for fear they will have to deal with hurt feelings or, worse, tears. Likewise, there is evidence that women bosses also don’t give tough (critical) feedback to their female subordinates because they want to be perceived as supportive. Therefore, if women won't insist on receiving tough feedback, they may instead receive neglect and invisibility.”

Selected Words of Wisdom: Uncensored and Uncut

“Be very clear and direct with yourself about you need and want from your legal career. And then be very clear with your bosses and mentors about what you want. Want to become a partner, a general counsel, a part-time associate? Then ask for it. Law firm leaders (mostly men) do not reward obliqueness or coyness or passivity. They don't spend much time wondering or guessing whether you’re happy or fulfilled.”

“You have to be able to sacrifice your free time and personal life in order to advance in the workplace. You need to determine whether or not you want to make that sacrifice.”

“Decide what is most important to you and then don't feel guilty about the things that you've put into second place.”

“Have a good support structure in your family and friends that will understand your commitment and help you become successful in the organization. Seek out existing leaders in the organization as mentors. Strive to be good at what you do, and enjoy doing it. People recognize good work and trust the people who do it. Get out of your office. People are more willing to trust you as a leader if they know you.”

“Network and get a mentor inside the organization who has influence/power to promote you. Be sure to network outside of the work place whenever there are opportunities to socialize with higher level managers. Also, volunteer for high visibility projects that others may be reluctant to take on. Be very visible but you must be effective as well.”

“In law firms, everyone working in any role is given opportunities to advance by those who possess power over them. Therefore, you're constantly applying for advancement opportunities and negotiating someone else's acceptance of your applications. Recognize and accept that your law firm is a society, a sociological unit. You will constantly have to negotiate your own position in the pack and obtain the support of those who already have power to help you acquire your own or more power.”

“Business generation is key. Also, delegation is key. If you can get work to others, you will have more time for networking and business generation.”

“Don't be emotionally entangled with the job. Be protective of your book of business. Be strategic. Find a mentor who won't find you to be a threat when you have individual success.”

“Develop your own ‘brand’ and style and do a fantastic job being you. Don't try to be a great trial lawyer if that isn't your makeup - you will just appear mediocre. Instead, make yourself the ‘go to’ gal for your niche and develop your value proposition in a way that makes sense for you.”

“Be creative with how you make yourself valuable, and work not to settle. Salary doesn't adequately measure your contribution to the firm, so remember that your creativity will be reflected in other ways: after all, a bigger salary doesn't necessarily mean greater job security.”

“Like any minority you have to be willing to run harder, run faster, and be smarter than your male counterparts, yes you still have to prove yourself. Also, when you see biases impacting decision-making be prepared to raise the issue.”

“Instead of walking away, do something about it. Be a leader for everyone else coming behind you.”

About the Editor

John D. Bowers is a Business Development Manager for Fox Rothschild LLP. In this capacity, he identifies and promotes new business strategies for individual attorneys as well as practice areas. John moonlights as Editor-In-Chief of Law Practice Today.

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