How to be a Confident Woman Lawyer and Ally

As a new lawyer who went out on her own straight out of law school while raising her first child, I am no stranger to confidence issues. In those first couple of years, it seemed I knew nothing. What had law school even been for? I’d left it with confidence in my mind and lawyerly thinking, in my compassion and commitment to the rule of law and clients facing legal issues. But there was so much more to understand and do. I was overwhelmed, but I thought I was the only one experiencing those feelings.

Five years passed, and some of my confidence issues subsided. I seemed to have a knack for rapport-building and getting the client, but I didn’t love the practice like many of my colleagues did, so I looked for a role where I’d be wearing a teaching hat more of the time. I became a practice management advisor at a bar association, and delved deep into the world of helping lawyers manage their practice and ethical obligations. This work matched me—I couldn’t believe what joy and excitement it brought me. But boy, I still had confidence issues. The only saving grace is that I now had a window into my cohort, and realized that we all to some degree have confidence issues.

I see women with more confidence dilemmas and struggles than their male counterparts, but that could just be because I see myself reflected in them. I’ve seen confidence issues affect lawyers at all phases of their career, from those early in their career who somewhat awkwardly call themselves “baby lawyers,” to busy partners struggling with management of people and problems, and retiring lawyers trying to hand over their life’s work to others while retaining dignity and sense of self. It comes out in small comments or big tears. Sometimes it is a catalyst for beautiful change and sometimes it drives them deeper into misery. I’ve come to conclude that it is part of the human condition, something I always feel honored to glimpse in a person trained to the most astute and precise level of preparedness, refinement, and brilliance.

In my experience—and the data concurs—women show more confidence issues than men. In many studies in the U.S. and abroad, women negotiate for raises less often than men, and when they do they ask for between 20 and 30% less than their male counterparts. In school and work, they expect to earn less. These tendencies are in older and younger women, so the next generations aren’t just growing out of it.

Women do, in fact, earn less—about 70 cents to every dollar a male makes, on average. Male and female first-year associates usually start equal, or the women are even making a little more. Within the next five years, male colleagues will begin to make more, and women attorneys will never catch up. Even in immigration law—a rare practice area with more women than men—women make less than men.

From the AILA 2019 Marketplace Study, shared with permission from the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

Some hold up maternal instincts as the reason women make less. It’s true that there is a palpable tug between home and work for women, accounting for women leaving the workforce in much greater numbers to balance the newly wobbly work-life balance of homeschooled children we were facing. But it doesn’t account for all, and I, for one, look forward to the day men have as much pull toward childrearing as women do.

In other words, women aren’t just doing this to themselves. Studies show that cultural norms and unconscious gender bias lead people to expect women to be more helpful than men at work. Female lawyers are eight times more likely to be mistaken for support staff and more likely to be interrupted than their male counterparts. Because of unconscious bias, women lawyers are more likely to be given the “den mother” role of the practice group or law firm, and find themselves planning all the events, bringing the snacks, and losing out on opportunities for advancement.

Women are also acutely aware that if they speak up, seek opportunities, and refuse the den mother role, they will likely be viewed as abrasive or bitchy. Research also shows that people are more confident with male leadership and find women who just imitate male confidence as untrustworthy, poor leaders. Some argue it’s just biology. Estrogen influences women to worry, hesitate, not speak up unless they know they are right, and eventually recede into the background as promotions are doled out to their male colleagues.

In other words, confidence issues in women are reflected in what they earn and do in their careers. Interestingly, women solo practitioners also charge less than their male counterparts. Whether this is biology or a direct internalization of society’s treatment of women doesn’t really matter in the long run. We walk with confidence issues throughout our lives that can impact our family and work life profoundly.

What We Women Can Do

Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, authors of The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance—What Women Should Know, wrote about their own frustration with looking at confidence and women. “Biology, upbringing, society: all seemed to be conspiring against women’s confidence,” they said. But they circled back to the definition of confidence given to them by Richard Petty, a psychology professor at Ohio State University, who has spent decades focused on the subject.

“Confidence,” he told us, “is the stuff that turns thoughts into action.” Of course, other factors also contribute to action. “If the action involves something scary, then what we call courage might also be needed,” Petty explained. “Or if it’s difficult, a strong will to persist might also be needed. Anger, intelligence, creativity can play a role.” But confidence, he told us, is essential, because it applies in more situations than these other traits do. It is the factor that turns thoughts into judgments about what we are capable of, and that then transforms those judgments into action.

Women overcoming confidence issues need to take their queue from Nike and “just do it.” Intelligence or anger can light the match. But we need to choose to try. Resilience and courage will help. Absorbing criticism without being discouraged will help. Taking risks, negotiating, and asking for more money than what we think we deserve will help. Speaking up despite rejection will help. After all, these are the things that build confidence over time. But we have to put our hats in the ring first.

I’m also a firm believer in taking stock of your talents regularly. Whether this is done through administering and reviewing client satisfaction questionnaires, reviewing your case load for successes and losses to improve, or running your key performance indicators, look back at how you are doing to help you improve and attain your goals. If you need help identifying talents, do this with people you trust. Supervising attorneys and mentors who do not support you can deflate a growing confidence quotient with one prick of a needle, so don’t give in to that narrative. Keep your eye on the prize. Statistics show that confidence is more important than competence in getting the client, promotion, and raise, so we are growing something essential to your future success here. You need the competence, but you also need the confidence. Make it your mission to acquire it.

Look for places that want and value you. There are places that will lift you up and places that will tear you down. Tearing down isn’t always bad, because it does help build resilience to criticism. It proves to us that rejection isn’t the end of our dreams. However, it isn’t the place to stay. Gravitate towards employers and environments that support your mission of building your confidence and getting you on equal footing with your male counterparts at every turn.

Protect Your Productivity Artfully

But what if you are relegated to the den mother role right now and you aren’t the boss? Here are some examples of how to tactfully dodge unwanted tasks and get support for your mission.

Create the Rotation

Ana is asked to take notes in the weekly meeting for the third time in a row. She realizes it is almost impossible to make important contributions when she is fervently trying to get everything down for later. Ana says, “I can take notes this week, but we should rotate this task.” With the notes, include a schedule that assigns notetaking to someone different every week.

Pick Your Replacement

A partner says, “Marisol, you can plan the holiday party again this year. You did such a good job with it last year.” Marisol responds, “Thank you. It was fun. I think Daniel should be in charge of it this year. It will give him a chance to develop soft skills and get to know the support staff better.”

Enlist Your Allies

Philomena gets assigned the weirdest projects. She had to find a new mail machine, revise the document retention policy, including training and supervising temporary workers to scan or shred hundreds of files, and evaluate office equipment. She’s an associate, not an office manager, and she doesn’t get any credit for it in the compensation plan or recognition of her success with these projects. She decides she needs to get off the den mother track, because she wants to make partner and she sees the better cases going to men who started at the same time as her.

Philomena consults a partner who she trusts. She says, “Adam, the next time a project like this comes up, can you help make sure it’s assigned to someone else? We all need practice management skills. It shouldn’t always be me.” He wishes she would do it because she is so good at it, but he grudgingly agrees that it would be better if everyone was strong on internal projects. Adam asks if she would be more interested in the projects if they resulted in higher compensation and/or a title like managing partner. Now, she has some input and something to think about.

Ask for What You Need

Serena is trying to get an important brief done, but the small knocks and requests for a moment of her time never stop. Fredrick is also writing a brief in the office next door, but no one—from the office manager to the paralegals to the new associate—asks him for help. They come to Serena because she is bright, in the know, and a central guiding light to everyone. Unfortunately, the result is more errors in Serena’s work from multitasking, and another late night at the firm for her, after everyone else has left. She feels like a victim of her own success.

Serena’s had enough. She sits down with her supervising lawyer the next day and proposes two options. “We need more support here and I want the office manager to become more comfortable with making basic decisions without me when they don’t relate to legal analysis. I can’t keep getting interrupted every hour. Fredrick could do some of the management, too.”

Her boss responds, “But people just don’t trust him like they trust you. Serena, you are so competent and smart, everyone relies on you.”

Serena responds, “I really do appreciate that, but everyone has their limits. Either I have your support to close my door and insist on designated hours with no disturbances or I work from home two days a week so that I can focus on my work. I want a fair shot at getting the same results as Fredrick, and I think I could do it if I was given the same freedoms and latitude to practice law like he is.”

Her boss agrees to both options, actually, and decides it’s time to level the playing field by giving the office manager more autonomy and formally shifting the chain of command, so some folks report to and work under Fredrick. Serena is recognized at the next meeting as an astute leader, and she tests out her two solutions for a few months to determine what combination protects her productivity best.

Remaking the Firm Culture

Supervising attorneys and partners should make a conscious effort to equalize the playing field, so women associates get the same opportunities to do the intricate or high-profile cases as their male colleagues. Here are a few things your firm can do to balance internal burdens and ensure female lawyers get the same opportunities as their male counterparts:

  • Rotate event planning and cookie-bringing duties on a schedule that includes everyone, instead of opening it up to volunteers. Even if Evan isn’t as good as Eve at decorating, he can do it, and it’s good for him to develop new skills.
  • Create a culture of accountability by explaining the reasoning behind internal support assignments, with consequences for not fulfilling the obligations and recognition for those who do.
  • Minimize assigning internal support work to female lawyers by outsourcing, catering, using consultants, and/or hiring support staff with job descriptions that include firm “housework.”
  • Reward mentorship and team-support activities in the compensation plan. This will motivate everyone to contribute more in that sphere and provide support to those who support the team.
  • Create a culture where a female associate can feel safe saying “no” without judgment. Support all associates and partners in their individual goals.
  • Encourage attorneys in the firm to block off time each week to do deep work without interruptions.
  • If you are a man, be an ally. Women need men with insider knowledge of the firm who understand the cost of inequality to everyone and the bottom line to show an honest commitment to take the right action. Support changes that bring more equality and opportunity.
  • If you are a supervisor, teach your subordinates to take risks and speak up. Make confidence-building part of their professional growth path. Don’t be afraid to talk about it.
  • If you are a woman lawyer with oodles of confidence (now), help a sister out. Think critically about your path to confidence and teach it to others.
  • If you are a woman, speak up. Don’t volunteer, don’t overcommit yourself. Protect your productivity.

How To Rewire A Biased Brain

Brene Brown, social worker and shame researcher, says that if tips and tricks worked, we wouldn’t have a multimillion-dollar self-help industry, obesity, depression, etc. etc. We have tips coming out our ears, but real change is hard. We are still in a society with an authority gap—where most think men are better leaders than women, despite ample data to the contrary. And we’ve shown how it isn’t just society doing it to us—that we are, in fact, doing some of this ourselves.

Whether you are an ally or a woman, questioning old assumptions and negative internal dialogue about yourself and colleagues is a start. When that internal voice says “I don’t think she knows what she is talking about,” try giving her the benefit of the doubt for a while longer. Applying a healthy dose of compassion and intentionally championing women—yourself and others—is another important start.

All of our brains need rewiring. When you hear or see a microaggression, such as a male interrupting a female in a meeting, don’t let it pass without addressing it head on. It can be after the fact, it can be indirect, and it can be timid at first, as long as it is a start. You are choosing to try and you deserve it.

About the Author

Charity Anastasio is practice and ethics counsel at the American Immigration Lawyers Association, where she helps AILA members be extraordinary lawyers and business owners. Find her on Twitter @charityanas.

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