Women Counsel Working Together

 “A strong commitment is required from all members of the profession to ensure that the justice and equality lawyers seek on behalf of their clients are also attainable by lawyers themselves.”

ABA Presidential Task Force on Gender Equality and the Commission on Women in the Profession, ”Power of the Purse:  How General Counsel Can Impact Pay Equity for Women Lawyers”, 2013

“There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”

—Madeline Albright, keynote speech at Celebrating Inspiration luncheon with the WNBA’s All-Decade Team, 2006.

A wealth of data supports the proposition that better decisions are made when diverse individuals participate in the decision-making process. At the same time, the statistics on women in BigLaw have been disappointing, and at the top levels, stubbornly immutable. As a result, all lawyers, in-house and at independent law firms, should be laser-focused on enhancing diversity in the profession, including by supporting women, attorneys of color, and of different sexual and cultural orientations.

Below are five ways you can help your women clients (in the case of outside counsel) and external legal counsel (in the case of in-house lawyers) to enhance their opportunities and careers, thereby expanding the pipeline to the top.

  1. Make sure women are in the room

When an in-house lawyer has business to award, she should always make sure that women are pitching for the businessnot just as the “worker bees” but as relationship or project leads. You don’t have to hire the woman, but you should always make sure she’s in the room. You should hire the best team for the project, but if you consistently give qualified women an opportunity, they’re certain to win projects. Given the relative dearth of women at the top, and depending on the specific nature of the assignment, it may take a special effort to make sure that women-led and women-dominated teams get an equal chance, but the effort is worth it to ensure your client is well represented.

When law firm teams pitch, be sure to ask who will be doing the work, and who will get compensation credit. Some clients feel it is inappropriate to participate in or direct how compensation credit will be awarded by a law firm. My personal view is that ensuring credit goes to the partner who is truly managing the matter (whether diverse or not) is good business for the client company. It makes sense that you’ll receive the best service from the person managing the work if that person is getting paid for, and therefore is most personally invested in, the workespecially if that person is not the historical recipient of the origination credit. Even if you are not willing to advocate about how team members are paid, that data can tell you something about the firm you are considering.

Food for thought: if you are choosing between equally stellar teams for a particular engagement, remember that the diverse team members probably had to work harder to get to where they are.  Logic suggests that the individuals who had to overcome more obstacles to gain their success may ultimately be the more motivated, better performers.

Practice tip: include the business team when selecting a woman for an engagement, both to obtain buy-in at the beginning of the matter and to avoid the appearance of gender-based favoritism.  After all, you will always choose the best team available.

If teams of outside lawyers appear non-diverse, ask why. Simply raising the issue generates awareness, and makes others understand that diversity is valued and a factor in awarding business.

The sales pitch is the perfect opportunity for a law firm to showcase the diversity it can bring to a matter, so firms should think strategically before entering the room. When your law firm is pitching business, ask to be on the team, ask to run the project, and be strategic about developing long-term ties. Remind your partners that diversity drives better business decisions, clients value diversity, and you can bring it. If the client is a woman, be sure to remind her that your communication styles might synch well, and make sure you include other women and diverse lawyers to fill out your team. Ask up front for the compensation credit before the pitch, so you can be ready to answer the question if the client asks. Be prepared.

  1. Help to frame the question

It is important to set expectations up frontto define what success means for the specific project. In-house lawyers know the company’s business better than their outside lawyers, so share that knowledge thoroughly and clearly.

On the other hand, sometimes, outside counsel may have a broader perspective on an issue than in-house counsel, either from working with the issue from different clients’ perspectives or, in the case of a smaller in-house legal team with limited resources, from having a more in-depth knowledge of the coverage area. Outside counsel can help the in-house client to successfully address relevant issues and identify peripheral or hidden risks that may arise as a result of a particular course of conduct.

Help your in-house client to use outside counsel more efficiently by discussing with her what tasks she can do internally or through a lower-cost provider. It might seem counterintuitive for outside counsel to suggest ways to lower her own billings, but that sort of advice will help your in-house colleague demonstrate her ability to manage costs. Knowing that you are helping her manage the relationship efficiently can help to make her eager to come back to you with more business.

Collaborate with other women lawyers! After all, in-house and outside counsel share the same client and ethical obligations under the law, and both will share the results of the case, transaction or project. Arriving at an up-front understanding of what success looks like on a particular engagement helps to ensure efficient, targeted results.

  1. Get to know each other

This is just smart business advice for any professional. People like doing business with people they like, and will put forth more of an effort for a colleague they respect and personally connect with. I’m not suggesting that you need to become best friends with your client or outside counsel, but it is worth the effort to connect on a personal as well as professional level.

Communication is the key to any successful relationship. The more in-house and external counsel communicate, the better they will understand how the other does business, how to support each other, and how to benefit your shared client. Understanding your counterpart will also help you to understand her firm’s culture. You can leverage this knowledge to obtain (in the case of in-house lawyers) or deliver (in the case of outside lawyers) the work product in the most effective manner.

There are countless ways to connect, broaden and deepen your professional ties, and become more personally connected. Invite your client to your law firm’s CLE and networking events, and introduce her to others. If she consistently declines invitations to evening events, ask her if breakfast better fits her schedule. Introduce her to other clients with similar practice areas or in the same industry. Nominate her for awards, speaking engagements, or positions of influence, even at her own firm. In-house counsel should share with outside counsel copies of the company’s relevant press releases or Forms 8-K. Ask your outside counsel to speak at your industry lunch group or at your weekly department meeting.

  1. Be a fan

It’s easy to pick up the phone, send an email, or an old fashioned, snail mail letter. But you can do even more.

When you thank outside counsel for a job well done, do it in writing, and make sure that it is in an appropriate format for sharing. Write your note in such a way that your outside counsel can forward to a member of the firm’s compensation committee or to a partner in charge. Share it internally at your company, too. Making sure your colleagues know about your outside counsel’s skills, business savvy, and efficiency is a great way to help her get retained for other mattersand to showcase how smart you are for hiring her!

Outside counsel also can send a written letter to the client and the client’s manager, thanking her for the opportunity to work for the company and specifically stating what the successful outcome was. Provide details on the in-house lawyer’s role in the success of the project. It is very important to include relevant details, so that the manager can be reminded of, and visualize, the importance of the in-house lawyer’s contribution. Make sure your client has a copy, so that she can pull out your letter at review time. This is currency that every strategic in-house lawyer will value and remember.

Make sure you talk up your counterpart to others inside your firm or company. The better your client’s reputation at your law firm, the better service she will receive from others at the firmand you can bet that her enhanced reputation will find its way back to her own company. Similarly, if you are talking up your outside counsel to your colleagues in-house, you will enhance her prospects for winning more business, and your praise will likely find its way back to her law firm.

Practice Tip: whenever a client, colleague, or counterpart thanks you for a job well done, ask them to tell your boss in writing. Usually, they will be happy to do it, but if time starts to slip away with no follow-up, try sending some yourself: send a thank you note to them for the generous words that they said to you, including quotes if you can, and send a copy of your note to your boss.

The best reason to become a person’s fan is because she’s exceptionally good at an important job and she does it professionally, efficiently, and cost-effectively. Whether you are an outside or inside lawyer, be sure to give your counterpart ample “material” to rave about. Sell yourself to her, so she can sell you to others. And if it doesn’t occur to her to sing your praises, singing her praises might give her the idea to reciprocate.

  1. Give feedback

Feedback from someone you work closely with on a case or project should be frequent, timely, targeted, and meaningful. Put aside convention and speak upyou might be able to enhance the results for your common client, to help a colleague develop professionally, or both. Most mature professional women understand that all feedback is a gift, so give the gift whenever you have an opportunity.

Keep in mind that women may be more comfortable providing feedback to other women than men may feel about giving that same feedback. Use that power to give and get career-enhancing information.

What if your client or outside counsel doesn’t ask for feedback? Give it anyway. Think of it as your obligation to your firm or company. Feedback improves performance, which means your common client will reap benefits. If it is hard for you to speak up, you might suggest that she give you frank feedback and you’ll offer her your thoughts in return. You might show her a copy of this article. Since women often receive less feedback than men, make it your mission to fill that gap for your women counterparts.

At the end of the day, each of us is responsible for our own career paths and our own success. But the simple truth is that it is harder to succeed as a member of any “out-group”, whether gender-based or otherwise. As women, we all have unique and powerful opportunities to help other women and we should. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it will come back to you to enhance your own career experience. Just as a rising tide lifts all boats, piecemeal advances for women in the profession helps us to achieve wholesale gender equity, which in turns helps all of our firms and clients.

About the Author

Jennifer H. Zimmerman is an in-house attorney and practice group leader at Morgan Stanley, where she is an active member of the diversity and inclusion and philanthropy committees, and a former chair of the legal and compliance group’s women’s initiative.

(Image Credit: ShutterStock)

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