Our panel discussion on “How Men and Women Can Work Together to Bring Diversity to the Legal Profession” had just come to a close when I turned to my fellow panelist, Allison Turner, an associate at Latham & Watkins, and said, “Note to self—don’t bring up spa day again.”
That is how my day concluded as a panelist and guest at the National Women Law Students’ Organization (NWLSO) Leadership Academy, held at Harvard Law School on November 23, 2019, in Boston, Massachusetts. The program was presented by Ms. JD, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to the success of aspiring and early career women lawyers. The attendees were a select group of 2L and 3L women from law schools throughout the country who have been identified as “future leaders” of the profession.
Our panel featured a wide range of voices and backgrounds, including the aforementioned Ms. Turner; Monsurat Adebanjo, founder and CEO of Brown Girl for the Arts Media and editor-in-chief of the Urban Culturist; Josephine Lee, associate general counsel at Converse; Najee Thornton, an associate at Fenwick & West (and the only other male in the room that day, albeit just for this panel program); and Lisa Levey of Genderworks. I somehow found myself playing the slightly uncomfortable role of providing the “middle-aged white male attorney” perspective.
It was an off-the-cuff reference, however, to a big law firm women’s initiative program that chose a “spa day” as their affinity group’s activity a few years back that somehow became the focal point for the panel and audience—over and over again—during the 75-minute chat. I merely said some leaders at the firm had scoffed at the activity and it probably did not help push the envelope for the female attorneys at the firm.
Some of the responses to that comment included “What’s wrong with that? Who doesn’t love a spa day?” to “How is that any different from a group of men going golfing and discussing business?” These were good points. Of course, I enjoy a spa day as much as the next person. I was just citing what others had previously said describing some law firm initiatives designed to create opportunities for women. I wasn’t dissing spa day, I was just relaying a story about others dissing spa day, and explaining that it was more about the “optics” of the event than whether it was credible or legitimate. But it was fascinating to see what a flashpoint it became.
In speaking with a very diverse group of women law students, it was interesting to look into the eyes of those who were perhaps months away from experiencing first-hand the cultural, organizational, and leadership issues they may face in their first full-time jobs as attorneys at law. We talked about why diversity mattered—both from the perspective of a moral imperative to my somewhat jaded reminder that it mattered to some (major corporate) clients, so the bottom line should encourage moving the needle. Always an ABA ambassador, I relayed my experiences in helping to guide an important diversity policy through various channels in my recent role as chair of the ABA Standing Committee on Continuing Legal Education (SCOCLE), with my own leadership appointment coming from Paulette Brown, the first African American female president. Diversity and Inclusion is a hallmark of many ABA initiatives, and I encouraged attendees to get involved with the country’s largest bar association.
Why is the vast pipeline of women lawyers not resolving the issues?
My favorite session of the Academy was the keynote at the opening reception the night before at Latham & Watkins. Once I got over the slight intimidation of walking into a cocktail reception as the only man in a room full of women, I grabbed a beer and enjoyed the conversations. The remarks from Judge Patti B. Saris, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, were poignant. She could tell her personal story—of politics, parenting, the judicial system, work/life balance, sacrifices, and accolades—without giving templated advice. Her comment on the assumption that a large pipeline of women lawyers would organically shift their success in partnership and leadership tracks was insightful. Most of all, she provided a perfect role model for a 2019 law student getting ready to take the bar and enter the profession.
Network, Network, and Network Some More
Three different sessions hit various topics surrounding networking. Deborah Henry Epstein, a former litigator (and fellow Philadelphia lawyer) spoke on “Striking the Self-Promotion Balance: Demonstrating Your Value without Being the Obnoxious Person in the Room.” Epstein is well-known in the profession for her Flex-Time Lawyers LLC and as a co-founder of Bliss Lawyers—both businesses providing and guiding attorneys looking for flexibility and work/life balance opportunities while still doing sophisticated legal work. Hours also were devoted to “Utilizing Your Time to Leverage Leadership Opportunities,” from Jodi Flynn and “Networking Skills for Law Students,” from Diane Darling. Clearly, Ms. JD and the NWLSO believe that network development is a critical piece for any leadership success.
Those programs hit a wide range of topics that included proper handshakes, collecting and disseminating business cards, utilizing LinkedIn, subtle bragging (i.e. not being obnoxious in self-promoting), and strategizing your organizations, roles, and goals.
Alternative Careers for Lawyers
In addition to the diversity panel, there was a program on “Life Outside of the Law Firm: Non-Traditional Legal Careers.” The panel included Sara Dewey, director of Farm & Food and staff attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation; Kyona McGhee, attorney and founder, Trademark My Stuff; Lauren Stiller Rikleen, author and founder, Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership; Eliza Sweren-Becker, counsel, Democracy Program, Brennan Center for Justice; and Michele Alexandre, dean and professor of law, Stetson University College of Law. These women all took different paths with their JDs. While opinions differed, I thought the suggestion of spending some time at a law firm first—getting that legal grounding and training—would be most helpful down the road. It was one aspect of my own alternative career path that I regret not pursuing longer. A year or two of getting (figuratively) whacked in the head as a young associate may have done me some good. But some speakers felt it was better to go right into what you are most interested in, be it public service, academia, or any other differing career path.
Hazel-Ann Mayers, executive vice president and chief business ethics and compliance officer at CBS Corporation, spoke during a “fireside chat.” A Harvard Law alum, Mayers said she hoped that years down the road those in the audience would give back to others in the same way. Simply giving anecdotal examples from a successful legal career kept the 2Ls and 3Ls listening and asking lots of questions. If you are going to take career advice, Ms. Mayers was a good choice to discuss her experiences in law firms and corporate life. She spoke of seeing the good, bad, and the ugly in different stops along the way. Describing success stories (and difficulties) in both multiple law firms and corporate settings struck a chord.
A Well-Stocked Pipeline
A final takeaway from the NWLSO Leadership Academy goes back to Judge Saris’ comments about the pipeline. These female law students represented a mix of women from diverse backgrounds who are heading to top law firms and clerkships. The pipeline is full. Whether the result is continued growth and change in the diversity and inclusion is still to be seen. But it won’t be for a lack of networking, or leadership—and maybe even the occasional “spa day.”
About the Author
Micah Buchdahl is an attorney who works with law firms on marketing and business development and is a past chair of the ABA Law Practice Division. Micah is the Associate Editor of Law Practice Today’s Board of Editors. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 856.234.4334, and on Twitter at @mbuchdahl.