January 2011 | Glass Ceiling or Hot Air?
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A Review: Women on Top – The Woman’s Guide to Leadership and Power in Law Firms  

By Jamie J. Spannhake

This brief yet thoughtful synopsis reveals some of the powerful insights offered by this book’s 2010 edition, designed to benefit women and men alike.

I recently read Ida Abbott’s latest book Women on Top – The Woman’s Guide to Leadership and Power in Law Firms. It is part of West’s Law Firm Management and Economics series and its purpose is to “provide insights, information, and tools to help women in law firms create the strategies they need to become the successful leaders they want to be” without waiting for law firms to change. As a woman lawyer who has worked in a large firm, both full-time and flex-time, I found the book to be fantastic and believe it is a must read for anyone – man or woman – who wants to see women succeed as leaders and rainmakers in law firms.

What sets this book apart from others is that it was designed to guide women lawyers to success is that Women on Top aims to not merely show women how to operate in the man’s world of law firms, but to help women and men understand the existing culture and transform the law firm environment so that women can succeed more naturally.

The depth of treatment of the material also makes this book stand out from similar books. Every problem or element Ms. Abbott introduces is followed by a lengthy discussion that explores why the problem or element exists, how to handle it, and what can be done to change or improve it. Ms. Abbott’s thirty-plus years of experience as a practicing lawyer and consultant to law firms, as well as her meticulous research and innumerable interviews, flesh out the material to create a handbook for women who want to lead and attain power within their law firms and for anyone who wants to help law firms retain talented women.

Starting with the table of contents and the Introduction, one realizes how phenomenal this book is going to be, and the remainder of the book does not disappoint the reader. Quite to the contrary, the book is packed with enlightened insights, helpful anecdotes, and practical tools.

The book is divided into three distinct parts. Part one “looks at the unique leadership challenges that women face and men do not.” I particularly enjoyed this portion of the book because it validates how many women feel about the challenges they face in their firms and provides a vocabulary to describe and understand those challenges. Part 1 also enlightens with advice, tactics, and tools on how to recognize and handle these unique challenges.

For example, Ms. Abbott describes the “classic double bind” that women face when they try to be leaders. If a woman exhibits traditionally feminine behaviors, she is viewed as “too soft” and is not respected as a potential leader. If, however, she is “highly businesslike,” she is perceived as “too tough,” which makes her unlikable such that she is not given the opportunity to lead.

Ms. Abbott also explores many aspects of leadership that women must handle in a law firm, including stereotyping and bias, leadership styles, and the unique business relationships women have with other women. She also addresses certain traps that women should avoid, like being the token woman in a leadership position and allowing oneself to become a service partner.

Part two of the book “studies leadership within the context of law firms and discusses how law firm structure, culture and politics, as well as lawyers’ personalities and attitudes create special challenges for law firm leaders.” It is a realistic, and perhaps disappointing, view of the current culture in law firms and how that culture creates additional challenges for women who want to be leaders and rainmakers.

Ms. Abbott begins part two by asking the question, “What is leadership in a law firm?” and follows it with the answer, “a process of influencing people to produce positive outcomes for the firm.” She discusses the various aspects of leadership, including trust, integrity, and professional excellence. For example, she explains that “professional excellence” is not merely high quality work, legal expertise, and reaching expected hours. Rather, “leadership excellence is about driving and achieving results.” She also explores the sources of power, which include management power, rainmaking power, positional power, and power through personal attributes. By exploring these sources, the reader can determine which source or sources of power best suit her in order to determine how to set attainable leadership goals.

Ms. Abbott has also included an entire chapter on mastering law firm politics. One of the primary benefits of this chapter is helping the reader anticipate what she will be up against in the firm and who can help her or stop her from succeeding. Ultimately, part two of the book enables the reader to “understand the challenges and context of law firm leadership” so she can “move ahead with greater forethought and discernment to shape [her] career as a leader.”

Part three of Women On Top “deals with the personal aspects of leadership and gives women a framework for becoming successful leaders.” Ms. Abbott coined the acronym ASPIRE to detail the six elements essential for women’s leadership successes and devotes an entire chapter in part three to each of the elements:

  • Ambition
  • Strategy
  • Personal Power
  • Interpersonal Dynamics
  • Resilience
  • Empowerment

Women On Top is a great read and should be studied by anyone who wants to be a leader in her firm – or thinks she might – and who wants useful tools garnered from many women who have already achieved leadership positions in their law firms.

The book can be ordered online at www.IdaAbbott.com and www.west.thomson.com.

About the Author

Jamie Jackson Spannhake is an attorney in Connecticut and is Co-chair of ABA Women Rainmakers.

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