The Genesis of This Article
In June 2022, I had the pleasure of serving as the moderator for the ABA Women Rainmakers’ webinar titled “Triumphs and Challenges of Women in Law: Hearing from Three Generations.” The panelists included:
- Marianna Dyson (Baby Boomer), senior of counsel at Covington & Burling LLP, who advises large employers in the areas of payroll tax, fringe benefits and information reporting.
- Anne E. Collier (Generation X), CEO of Arudia, a firm dedicated to improving culture, collaboration and communication. Anne is a leadership coach steadfast in her commitment to excellence and her clients’ goals.
- Abigail Earthman (Millennial), a member of Winstead’s Wealth Preservation Group. She handles federal gift and estate tax litigation against the Internal Revenue Service across the country as well as state fiduciary and probate controversy work in Texas courts.
Let’s start with the polling questions we asked the approximately 100 attendees – the answers illuminate the discussion that followed.
- How many hours do you typically work a week? 4% – less than 30 hours, 33% – 30-45 hours, 49% – 45-60 hours, 13% – 60 or more hours.
- Do you think a glass ceiling still exists for attorneys that do not identify as male?
94% responded yes and 6% responded no.
- Do you think flexible scheduling forces you to work more or equal to a traditional schedule?
78% said yes and 22% said no.
We had 10 canned questions to ask the panelists. We only made it through three of them because we were bombarded by questions from the attendees. What follows summarizes the questions and answers.
With the benefit of hindsight, what would you tell your younger self to do differently?
Marianna responded that she wished she’d known more about time management skills. She was involved with a lot of litigation, and frequently got distracted, especially when she began raising a family. Nonetheless, she felt she had been very lucky and had a lot of mentors who helped her along the way.
Anne said she would focus on the priorities. She wouldn’t have been so hard on herself and would have been more confident. She frequently finds when she coaches lawyers that they are afraid of senior partners – she encourages them to ask questions.
Abigail agreed with Anne, wishing she too had been more confident. She noted (so true) that confidence develops over time. And she also encouraged new women lawyers to ask questions. She wished she had asked for more help – she too was involved in litigation and she was drowning. As she noted, there’s work and then there’s real life too.
What did you do well in the beginning of your legal career?
Marianna was quick to note that she went around and asked for work. Of course, she didn’t have the restraints we’ve been living with since COVID. She walked down the halls, introduced herself, said no job was too small, and that she had some downtime so she could offer any assistance needed. She worked with one litigator who loved to remove cases from state courts to federal courts. So, she became a specialist in that. In summary, she said to get to know people – tell them you’ll do anything.
Anne declared that she was definitely an extrovert. She loved walking around and getting to know people and had lots of interaction. The practice of law has many introverts and she acknowledged that interaction is harder for them.
Being a very curious person, she set out to learn partnership audit procedures for taxes. She got the expertise. She too highlighted the value of networking and building relationships within the firm. She also noted that there is some value in every project and advised women lawyers to keep learning – while maintaining a Zen approach to the practice of law.
Abigail made it known to the firm that she was very interested in diversity and inclusion, her huge passion. She talked to the partners about this, and makes a point of meeting all the diverse lawyers who come to the firm.
Audience question: How do you build a book of business at a large firm, like an AM LAW 100 firm with over 800 lawyers?
The panelists generally agreed that some factors are luck, being on the right team, developing the right expertise, getting referrals, and being persistent in your efforts. The panel noted that big firms love it if you grab a niche.
Anne coaches partners at big firms and underscored that networking is critical. She suggested offering to chair practice groups. In her view, it is very important to be seen as a team player, someone who is trustworthy and reliable. Figure out how to spend your precious networking time. Perhaps host events for clients? She was concerned that some women are afraid of getting it wrong and don’t do anything.
Marianna advised that you build your constituency within the firm, and those folks will help you branch out.
Abigail noted that she works very closely with a partner – she found her partner’s weaknesses and she made those her strengths. She also noted that other women will help you along the way.
Audience Question: What if you have had bad luck and have been assigned to dead-end cases, outside your desired area, with no mentor and no sponsor, and you are working too many hours and have no time to pursue some of the options the speakers have mentioned?
Marianna responded that she’s not sure you can fix that problem within an organization that lets that situation happen.
Anne concurred, and said that when you are that stressed out, you are probably not likely to look elsewhere, but you really need to look at different options, and perhaps go elsewhere. This might be the time to move on, find the support she needs and do work that she likes to do.
Audience Question: What advice do you have for practitioners in smaller firms, less than 10 lawyers?
Anne advised small firm lawyers to find ways to get involved, join the local bar association, and join the national bar association’s appropriate division. You can grow your network that way, become indispensable through volunteering, get people to know you, etc.
The panelists noted that many women are working from home and therefore may suffer from proximity bias because they are not physically at the office. Women also often have more responsibilities as a caregiver for children and for elderly parents.
Abigail mentioned that Facetiming is a powerful tool for her, allowing her to network with people when working from home. FaceTime has worked brilliantly for her, she said.
Audience Question: How do you learn how to talk about yourself and your practice when it doesn’t come naturally to you?
Marianna suggested that when talking to clients/prospective clients, to put the focus on questions such as “How can I help you?” Ask them about themselves. Discuss how you provide client service. Talk about the budget for the matter. Lawyers can share information about themselves by teasing information out of clients/prospective clients. She used to talk to many people over the phone because of distance and since the pandemic, she did get to know them better over Zoom.
Anne echoed Marianna’s thoughts. Prepare for these conversations and have talking points. Tell clients/prospective clients why you love this work, how you work.
Audience Question: As an associate, how do you suggest getting billable hours when conversations with partners don’t yield any results?
Anne asked “Is this firm the right place for your skill set?” She suggested a need to talk to the practice chair and make your situation their problem too.
Abigail agreed with that advice. She recommended being bold and talking to the practice chair. She suggested logging non-billable time so the partners see that. She also suggested becoming an expert in a niche area, and making that part of the firm’s service offering.
Marianna recommended, if you have downtime, to go to a partner and volunteer to write an article – the partner can be the author and you’ll be the co-author. This forces an interaction on a substantive issue. Think of strategies you can use to get a conversation going with people you’d like to work with.
Audience Question: What advice to you have for female partners looking to move into an equity position?”
Marianna replied that this should be strategic in all the ways the panel had discussed. She recognized that this will take a lot of spadework. Figure out how to invest your time and make the best choices.
Anne said if you’ve volunteered enough, if they know and trust you, they’ll know you’ll be a big contributor to the firm. By the time they have the meeting, it’s almost a done deal who will get an equity position.
Abigail recommended planning early and checking in often with folks who can help you. What do you need to do to become an equity partner? Ask the partners you know. Is your book of business big enough? Is it trending well?
Audience Question: I have the opposite problem. I am from a six-attorney firm. I’m drinking from a firehose. After two years of practice, I’m being pushed into a leadership position. I need leadership resources.
Anne suggested Women Rainmakers of the ABA and the ABA’s Law Practice Division, which have lots of resources. She also recommended being intentional and bold. Know how you are going to manage your day and your priorities. It’s also about what you’re not going to do.
Abigail advised of the need to talk to the partners and tell them you can’t work this hard indefinitely. Perhaps you can help solve the problem by getting help from a law clerk or intern?
Audience Question: What advice do you have for a young lawyer feeling discouraged by firm politics and the inability to grow as a lawyer – what’s the next goal? How do you become more relevant to the practice and the firm?
Anne responded, if you’re committed, ask how you can be more involved and up your profile. Who can advise you?
Marianna notes that some firms are very political. Good firms move young lawyers along.
Abigail suggested asking other junior people about firm politics and what you as a group can do.
Marianna cautioned the questioner to be careful because that action can be interpreted as aligning yourself with a faction.
Question: What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given as a woman lawyer?
Marianna laughed and talked about the first associate review she got, in which a partner said “She’s basically capable but she’s insufficiently servile.” A partner wrote that. It still makes her laugh.
When she was on a litigation team as an associate, a client turned to her and said, ”I want to know what your opinion is – it’s ok to think like a woman.” Many men have noted to her that women think more broadly/differently and that they find women are valuable advisors.
Abigail said her best advice came from a law professor who told her, “Be the best so you can help others be their best.”
Anne said her best advice came from her dad, who told her: “Don’t let the bastards get you down.”
And never forget a recurring theme of our discussion: Women empower other women!
About the Author
Sharon D. Nelson is a practicing attorney and the president of Sensei Enterprises, Inc. She is a past president of the Virginia State Bar, the Fairfax Bar Association, and the Fairfax Law Foundation. She is a co-author of 18 books published by the ABA and may be reached at email@example.com