Ten Takeaways for Women Lawyers

My experience teaching negotiation for over 10 years in leadership workshops for women, and speaking at international conferences on this topic, has led me to the following takeaways, which I would like to share with you.

Most of my tips are based on Harvard Negotiation theory and some of them have nothing to do with negotiation at all—but all of them have proved helpful in a negotiation setting.

The senior associates participating in my workshops are usually very proficient negotiators on behalf of their clients, but nonetheless, they find it hard to negotiate on their own behalf.

Is this a negotiation?

A lot of women don’t realize that they are entering a negotiation. Since most of them are great accommodators, they tend to say “yes” before asking for anything in return. And if you say “yes” over and over again, your colleagues will start seeing you as a pushover. Try to see every question in your office as a tiny negotiation. “Do you want to help Cynthia this afternoon?” or “Can you do a speech for the law students who will be visiting our office tomorrow?” This might feel like an exaggeration at first, but it will be helpful to recognize these situations. I sometimes even encourage participants just to try saying “no” to whatever question pops up—just to teach them that there is another choice besides saying “yes.”

Start asking for what you need.

Women tend to say either yes or no when asked to lead a new project or take on a new role. And mostly, this leads to saying “no” instead of negotiating about what they need to succeed, or what they need to be able to say “yes.” When I discuss Harvard Professor Deborah Kolb’s 2008 article in the ABA’s The Woman Advocate, “Asking Pays Off: Negotiating What You Need to Succeed,” with workshop participants, it turns out that this article is still very topical. Over and over, I have heard participants give examples of missed opportunities because, for example, the timing didn’t seem to fit. “What if I started this project next month?” or “If I started this project, could I get a personal assistant for three days a week?” Start asking!

“The household tasks are equally divided between me and my husband.”

This is what my participants tell me. But when your husband brings the children to school in the morning and you have to pick them up at the end of your working day, that’s not equal! It’s much easier to drop them off in the morning than to be dragged away when finishing a brief at the end of the day. A lot of negotiations start at your own kitchen table.

Teach your children.

Who is your role model? After the first few years of negotiation classes, I realized how deeply rooted the resistance to being an agent for yourself was. So I started asking, although it seemed a bit intrusive: “Tell me about a role model in your younger life. Who in your family showed you how to negotiate?” People gave me the most horrible examples. For example: “My mother told me: If you ask for something, you really have to be sure you are worth it.” If that is your earliest message at home when it comes to negotiation for yourself, you have some tough obstacles ahead of you. Most participants did not have an example at all, and others had examples from fathers or uncles. So the takeaway is: Teach your children. That is to say, teach your daughters. They will never get there without your help.

Don’t stop drinking.

Female associates work like hell, no doubt about it, but making it to partner is a political game that is not played behind your desk. A lot of women skip the social drinks since those are non-billable hours. That’s true, but most career deals are made during these same non-billable hours. And the good thing about drinks in the office is: you can plan for them. I am not saying you should drink more alcohol, but just don’t skip this valuable time.

Do your errands while working.

A lot of female lawyers in the Netherlands choose to work part-time, mostly four days a week (their husbands don’t). They squeeze all their dentist/ hair/nail appointments into the fifth day. I tell my participants to consider working full time and do their nails on the fifth day between office hours. Because if it turns out that the fifth day is otherwise spent at home finishing emails and briefs for work, you might as well work full time.

Get yourself a wife.

This advice was given by a female senior partner, who was trying to coordinate the sitter, the gardener, and the cleaner until one of her friends told her to “get a wife.” What her friend meant was trying to hire someone to manage an overview of everything going on in her life. And this is especially true for those among us who are single parents.

If your first name is a diminutive, consider changing it.

This is a sensitive issue, but I do address it in my training sessions. In the Netherlands, we have first names that are diminutives, such as Floortje, Fleurtje, and Dirkje. The ‘je’ part is the diminutive. This is not always a problem in business but combined with a very young look, it can be, well, let’s say “not very helpful.”

Dress for success.

It’s a classic for good reason. Even if you master the negotiation tips and techniques, if you want to be taken seriously, both inside and outside of the office, dress the part. Over the last five years, the dress code in a lot of firms has become very casual. Good for lawyers who bike to work, as we do in the Netherlands. But if you experience difficulties mentioning your hourly rate, you might consider altering your looks.

Don’t mention your (good) reasons.

Women, when asked for an appointment during a team meeting, for example, tend to explain “no, I don’t work on Wednesdays, it’s my day off for the kids.” Personally, if I want to make an appointment with someone, I’m not really interested in why that person isn’t available. The whole point of trying to make an appointment is to find out when you are available.

It is not that every female lawyer has to become a partner, but if this is one of your goals, try to get there. And in case you don’t necessarily want a “big career” in a law firm, the aforementioned takeaways will still prove very helpful for your negotiations at the kitchen table.

About the Author

Christ’l Dullaert is a leading thinker in the Dutch legal world. She is the author of six books on law firm management and business development and is the founder of Le Tableau, a first-of-its-kind employment agency for lawyers in The Netherlands. Contact her on Twitter @LeTableau.

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