Women are increasingly involved in managing law firms and changing the way they operate.
In this roundtable discussion, three female law firm executives discuss their leadership styles, careers, and gender equality in the profession.
||Trinae Hall (TH), Director of Business Development at Sussan, Greenwald, and Wesler.
Trinae brings significant experience as a previous Chief of Operation & Relationship Manager, paralegal, risk analyst, and business administrator. Trinae has had many responsibilities from operations, HR, client communications, and marketing. She is now serving as the new Director of Business Development at Sussan, Greenwald, and Wesler.
||Kelsey McCann (KM), chief of staff with Edelson PC.
Kelsey executes strategic planning, public relations, pro bono initiatives, staffing and the firm’s general strategic vision. Kelsey also chairs the Hiring Committee and Summer Associate Committee and sits on the Executive Committee.
||Kim Bonnar (KB), director of professional resources at Cassels.
Kim is involved in all aspects of recruiting, training, and performance development for Cassels. Kim also runs the Career Development Office for Osgoode Hall Law School, and established the first Office of Experiential Education at a Canadian law school.
Has being in leadership met your expectations about what it would be like to “break the glass ceiling”? Do you think your experiences as a woman have had an impact on your leadership style and your vision for the firm?
Trinae Hall (TH): Being in leadership has been more challenging yet rewarding than I could have ever anticipated. Women make up half the world’s population, and I strongly believe having a “women’s touch” or perspective on things results in better outcomes. We are compassionate, resilient, hard-working, and committed to our work and the work environment. My vision for the firm was to always ensure that everyone was heard. We value ourselves in not only being problem solvers but to ask what are your expectations and make sure they are met. When it comes to our staff, we ensure an open/welcoming work environment. At the end of the day, we are a team and work best together to get the best results for our clients. Being a woman in my position, I provide the empathy and understanding needed in getting this vision done.
Kelsey McCann (KM): It’s a difficult question to answer. On one hand, I recognize that I have had incredible opportunities at a young age (I became the firm’s chief of staff in my early twenties). Because of my position, I have been able to make a huge imprint on the firm (especially when it comes to diversity) and have also been lucky enough to have a national platform to discuss what has and has not worked for us. On the other hand, law is a very traditional field and I am well aware that, especially when dealing with those outside of the firm, my age and gender are often met with skepticism.
I firmly believe that my experiences as a woman have shaped my leadership style. Given that law has been a male-dominated field, and I had to learn to navigate it without many female mentors, I think I have a unique perspective on how to create a firm that is both inclusive and authentic.
In terms of breaking the glass ceiling, I don’t think that’s something that one person (or even a small group) can do alone. The glass will be officially broken when I am not an anomaly. We have years of hard work to get there but I do feel like we are finally on the right track.
Kim Bonnar (KB):I do think my experiences as a woman impact my leadership style. Early in my career, I was made to feel that I was wasting time when I mentored juniors, took on administrative roles, and focused on building relationships in addition to my billable work. Looking back, I can see that these are the tasks I enjoy and excel at doing. They are also what have brought me success in my current role. By focusing on the strengths different people bring to our firm, and how they can complement one another, we expand the scope of who can succeed and what success can look like. We also build a modern law firm that is stronger, more dynamic, and agile than the more homogeneous firms that existed in the past.
How do you deal with resistance from males when you are the only female, or one of few females, in the room?
TH: I have experienced being the only female in the room whether it is at an event or just in my field way too often. So how do I deal with it? As outlandish as this may sound, sometimes having a good pep talk with yourself can boost your confidence. Some days you just need a little reminder that you have earned the right to be where you are. Next, I would prep by making sure I am armed with facts before speaking and be prepared to back up my statements. A friendly reminder that you belong at the “table” so to speak can go a long way. In order to gain the respect you deserve, you must learn to fight the battles that matter and stop backing away in the face of every conflict. Lastly, dress for success! The right outfit can make you look and feel confident and empowered.
KM: I realized a long time ago that when people act based on the immutable characteristics of others, it has everything to do with them and nothing to do with me. (To be clear, that doesn’t mean I don’t get frustrated at times.) However, I also have seen such enormous change even over the last five years. When there is resistance, I remind myself that an idea stands alone — it is either good or bad, regardless of who it comes from — and those who think otherwise are going to be eaten up by the overwhelming reforms coming to the legal industry.
KB: Fortunately, I don’t often find myself as the only female in a room! However, when I struggle to get my point across in a group setting, I play to my strengths and leverage the relationships I have built. I will often circle back to individuals who I have strong relationships with to identify common goals and objectives to bring the rest of the group into a more productive dialogue. Even if the group ultimately goes another direction, by having these one-on-one conversations, I’m confident my points have been heard and considered appropriately.
Did you have any role models or mentors growing up, or even as a working adult, that helped shape your career goals/aspirations?
KM: I’ve had so many people who I’ve learned from in my life, from the strength, hard work, and kindness of my mom and dad to many of my incredible colleagues at Edelson. I give special credit to Jay, the founder of the firm. Jay taught me early in my career that we are in an ever-changing world and hierarchical ways of doing things are the biggest roadblock to innovation. This is especially true in the legal industry where we are taught to look backward for solutions. When it fully sank in that this was a firm of ideas, rather than rank, it opened up enormous opportunities. I gave myself the freedom to think about issues from first principles and allowed myself to dream big, both in terms of what the firm could achieve and with regard to my own professional path. He also taught me that it is the obligation of anyone who has had success to help the next generation.
How is gender equality in the legal profession in 2022 as opposed to where it was, say, 10 years ago? Where is there still room for improvement?
TH: Compared to 10 years ago, there are more women in the legal field than ever, but we are still behind the times. We still have to go “above and beyond” to get the same recognition as male colleagues. We are still receiving less compensation than male colleagues. We are receiving a penalty for having children and taking maternity leave, including being passed over for promotions, receiving low-quality assignments, demotions, or lesser pay, and being unfairly treated for requesting flexible schedules. And the list goes on… how do we improve? Putting women in more positions that involve HR management or leadership roles so that we can bring these issues to light and help improve the workforce. Providing transparency about the firm’s hiring and promotion practices will allow your employees to feel confident there are no hidden agendas.
KB: I’ve seen a lot of improvement. As an example, the way maternity leaves were treated at law firms 10 years ago had long-term implications on the career progression of women (because it was only women who took those leaves!). At Cassels, we have been able to address the systemic nature of the problem by minimizing any impact taking a parental leave has on the career progression of both men and women. Not only has this stopped women from being unfairly held back, it has also encouraged a lot more men to take parental leaves – which further helps level the playing field. An area I still see room for improvement is around compensating women appropriately for the non-billable work they do that adds value to the organization and client experience. This is a challenge within the traditional billable hour model, but I see strides being made every year and am optimistic this will be fully addressed sooner rather than later.
What is your firm doing to attract and retain female talent in the competitive hiring market?
KM: I think the “competitive” market is something that is mostly contained to BigLaw; law students and recent grads are looking for something different that BigLaw can’t deliver, so BigLaw keeps raising salaries and bonuses to make up for that. The great thing about Edelson, from the cases we bring to our unique culture, is that we are offering something very different. Lawyers who want to work on the major issues facing our country, who value creativity, substantive work opportunities early in their career, and getting paid based on the value they bring (as opposed to the number of hours they record in their timekeeping software) have been gravitating to our firm in droves. And, as law students have begun to realize, the pay on the plaintiff’s side often outpaces that of BigLaw.
KB: We attract talent by having our female lawyers talk with candidates about their experience at the firm. They can provide tangible examples of how our various programs and initiatives have supported their success. By having candidates speak with different female lawyers they can get a taste of the different types of support systems available and identify those that resonate with them. We treat our women, like we do all our lawyers, as individuals and don’t try for a one-size-fits-all approach. We know this strategy works because we have a tremendous track record of attracting and retaining female lawyers who are both leaders in their field and leaders within our firm.
What advice would you give other women looking to take on leadership roles in industries that are traditionally considered male-dominated?
TH: My advice to rising female leaders would be: It is most important that you believe in your abilities and value what you have to offer. I believe the most important reason I have succeeded in my career is the confidence I have in my abilities. It is also important to know why you wish to lead, communicate your vision to the people around you, and execute that vision. That is what makes the difference between managers and leaders. Lastly, be your true authentic self!
KM: When an industry is opening itself up to women, minorities, or other underrepresented people, it allows for enormous opportunities (while also creating big obstacles). We are seeing how quickly courts are embracing diverse plaintiff leadership teams in high-stakes MDLs. The new generation of lawyers should be sprinting to be prepared for these opportunities and then – and this is the most important piece – demonstrate that when put in a leadership role, they will use their new voices and perspectives to change the practice of law for the better. This is crucial during this intense period of reform that the plaintiffs bar is still grappling with, especially when it comes to settlement structures that traditionally have benefitted the lawyers over the clients. This is the key when it comes to diversity: new voices should mean jettisoning the bad ideas of the past and coming up with better ways of moving forward. When I see a diverse leadership team deferring to the old ways of doing things (and putting up the same bad settlements), I see it as a step backward in the overall fight. At its core, and as any high school student who read Animal Farm knows, it is not enough to simply assume a leadership position; rather, this new generation has to use that enormous power for broader change.
KB: Lean into your difference. Bringing something different from most of the other people in your industry is an asset (they have lots of what’s already there!). You earned the opportunity to be in the room because of the qualities you bring to the table. Although it may not always feel like it, those qualities are valued and needed. When you bring your full, authentic self to a role, with both the learned skills and the inherent qualities that make you different, you are much more likely to be professionally successful and personally fulfilled.
About the Author
Nick Gaffney is founder of Zumado Public Relations in San Francisco and a member of the Law Practice Today Editorial Board. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @nickgaffney.