Women Lawyers: Forget Your Job and Focus on Your Career

While the title of this article overstates the case, it attempts to redress a major problem and imbalance that interferes with career success:  namely, that many women lawyers pour everything into their jobs to the exclusion of managing their careers.  I have worked with hundreds of women lawyers in virtually every specialty, level and geography, and I have personally out-placed scores of women who mistakenly assumed that keeping their heads down and working hard would be enough to assure their success and security.

Like all lawyers, women lawyers face demanding, time-consuming jobs. For many, they must also juggle primary family responsibilities. Add to this the well-documented lack of a level playing field—for example, the higher level of scrutiny and the narrower band of acceptable behavior experienced by women—and it’s easy to see why women mistakenly believe that outworking their male competition is a simple but effective strategy.

The strategy is simple, but ineffective. Career management is the individual’s responsibility, and only her priority. Many of my clients have not lost their jobs, but are dissatisfied with their practices or career progress. They are frustrated by their options. For example, some started in a practice area due to firm needs, not personal interest, but stayed stuck because of continuing firm needs, inertia or uncertainty about how to make a change. What can a busy woman do?

The purpose of this article is not to scold or blame women, but rather to point out some career management actions that are not time-consuming, but can have an important impact on career satisfaction, success and longevity. Here are three simple steps you can take this week to improve your career:

Create a simple career plan.

When I advocate creating a career plan in speeches, the audience looks at me as if to say, “Do you honestly think I have time to analyze my career and put together a plan? I haven’t completed my business development plan for the firm yet. How can I possibly find time to do a career plan?”

Here is the secret to doing a career plan this week: take five minutes to write three lines on a piece of paper: my long-term career goal, how I want to improve my skills/experiences to advance toward the long-term goal in the next year, and how I want to improve in the next three years.

Five minutes to create this quick-and-dirty career plan will put you way ahead of most people who have no plan at all. You are free to change it as time passes, but the important thing is that a simple plan like this can guide your career choices and activities. Working hard is no guarantee that you will end up qualified to do the work you want to do. A plan guides you in choosing assignments to volunteer for, new activities to take on, or additional training. This five-minute investment can yield big results

For example, Hillary was a senior associate in the commercial litigation practice of a big firm, working for a notoriously difficult partner who delegated most of his work to her, and then took credit for it. He minimized her contact with clients, because it might be obvious who had done the work and knew the details of client cases.

She was burned out and trapped. By putting together a career plan, she identified her long-term goal as in-house counsel, and ultimately general counsel. She recognized that in-house litigation jobs are not plentiful, and since she had neither a litigation specialty nor an industry specialty, she set out to gain transactional experience by volunteering to help out on deals, spending extra time without getting billing credit to learn new skills. She also decided to volunteer for compliance cases, building on her prior audit experience before her legal career. The result? An in-house job she loves.

Ask someone who does something well.

Career books and media stories constantly tout the importance of building your network and your skills. How is this possible with high billable targets and other job pressures? Using the simple step strategy, identify one thing you don’t do very well, such as learning to please multiple demanding partners, including how to prioritize and push back when necessary.

Find someone who does this well, and take her or him to lunch. Be prepared with a concise description of the problem and past failures. Ask for specific advice about how to handle the problem gracefully but firmly, and how to avoid problems. People are flattered by being recognized for their excellence and asked for their advice. Finish by asking how you can return the favor. You may even ask for a follow up lunch in three months. Whether one lunch or two, this is a valuable way to gain important information and to simultaneously build a relationship.

Pursue feedback, especially negative feedback.

Law firms are notoriously terrible when it comes to feedback, whether formal or informal. I have read many performance reviews, and they are vague and utterly lacking in useful information about the problem or how to resolve it. Informal feedback tends to be infrequent and often comes in the form of angry rants with little to no follow up.

When a firm calls to ask for my help for an attorney they are terminating, I typically ask the reason and whether the attorney had received prior feedback about the problem. Usually there is a long pause, so I know that whatever follows, the answer is no, they didn’t get prior feedback. Often with female associates, I hear, “She just wasn’t partnership material,” without further elaboration, despite my questions.

Here is how you can get the feedback you need before performance or style issues become problems. You must ask for feedback, and you must keep asking. Get in the habit, at a minimum, of asking for feedback on your performance at the end of a deal or case. If you can ask for feedback each week, that is even better. We know that more frequent, more specific, more behavioral, and more detailed feedback is better.

Be matter of fact in requesting feedback if you want honest and useful information. Any defensiveness, hostility, emotionality, or other reaction will cause the feedback-giver to shut up.  Just the facts. Be concise, ask specific questions so you understand the feedback and how to use it, thank the person and let both of you get back to work.

Don’t be satisfied with a “fine” or “pretty good.” And really pursue negative feedback – what could I have done better? What did not work so well? What should I do differently and how would you advise me to do it differently? Get specific about what went wrong and how to correct it, then implement the suggestions and follow up with the feedback giver for their evaluation.

Making routine and matter of fact requests for feedback over time elicits increasingly candid and useful feedback. Women are especially likely not to hear negative feedback. I remember a senior woman executive relating a conversation with her CEO, who refused to give feedback to another woman executive who was in trouble, because, he said, he was afraid she would cry. Though this may be an extreme reaction, evidence shows that women do not get the quantity or quality of feedback that their male colleagues do. Unless you ask.

Don’t think that no news is good news. I outplaced a brilliant young lawyer who lost her job because she misunderstood the unspoken interpersonal and communication demands of the role. The powerful partner who had long been her champion was frustrated and disappointed by her response when he asked for her evaluation of courses of action for clients.

He expected her to give the pros and cons of each alternative, followed by her recommendation. He found her even-handed review of the alternatives without a recommendation to be a sign of weakness. So did clients.

She lost the confidence of the partner and the clients, and before long, she lost her job. Unfortunately, the partner never articulated this to her. By the time a woman partner pointed out her mistake, it was too late. While the partner was at fault, the associate was the one out of a job. Had she asked for feedback, and kept pressing for constructive feedback on what she could do better, her once-promising career would not have been derailed.

Women lawyers have little time and demanding jobs, but career satisfaction and security can be greatly enhanced by following these three simple steps, none of which are time-intensive. To paraphrase a public service announcement from years ago, the career you (create and) save will be your own!

About the Author

is the principal of RJC Associates, which provides leadership, career, organization, and team development services to executives, attorneys and other professionals. She can be reached at rjc@rjcassociates.net.

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