The Talent

July 7, 2009 1:09 PM

Lack of Self-Promotion Hurts Women in Large Firms

Posted by Ed Shanahan

By Patricia Gillette

Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. She’s probably not the first person to come to mind if I asked you to name a female leader. Yet, think about it, Dorothy was a true leader. She identified the tasks at hand, formulated a plan, and overcame obstacles to reach her goals: a brain for the scarecrow, a heart for the tin man, and courage for the cowardly lion.

But when push came to shove, what did Dorothy ultimately ask for herself from the Wizard? Nothing. Instead, she preempted his attempt to even try to reward her, thereby letting the Wizard off the hook.

Some might say Dorothy's behavior represents the stereotypical female leader. She builds teams. She encourages collaboration and consensus. She reaches resolution efficiently. And, at the end of the day, she asks for no credit, no reward, no recognition. And thus, no one knows what she has done and no one thinks of her as a leader.

No question, this lack of self-promotion plays out in law firms, and it does so to the detriment of women.  Look no further than the statistics that have plagued our profession for years as proof of this:  just 2 percent of the chairs of major law firms are women, 19 percent of the partners at large law firms are women. Here and there you find the token "woman's seat" on the executive committee.

Are men in law firms really so much more qualified than the women in those firms to hold the majority of the leadership positions? Are men in law firms really so much better at developing business that they should have the largest books? Of course they're not. What men still have, in part due to the lack of female partners and the exodus of women from law firms, is the power to decide who gets the nod for new opportunities and who doesn't. In fact, if truth be told, the old boys' club, unconscious bias, and outright resentment of women who ask for business or leadership opportunities are all alive and well in many law firms.

While it's easy--and fair--to point a finger at all these factors, however, women have played some part in creating the current situation by following the Dorothy model of "don't ask and don't tell."  Many women don't ask for business and career opportunities, for leadership positions, for chances to strut our stuff.  Correspondingly, many women don't tell (read: acknowledge their wins) when they are successful. Instead, women tend to wait for the recognition and reward--a wait that can last a career. This is not the sole reason or even the primary reason for the lack of women in positions of power, but it is a contributor.

So how can we break the barriers that hold women back from positions of power in law firms? First, we have to acknowledge that power in law firms is defined by meaningful leadership positions and books of business, and that it is time for us to demand that firms change the traditional ways in which that power is transferred. This starts by mandating training in what constitutes "unconscious bias" for all partners and associates. Men and women must be willing to acknowledge that they are not innocent bystanders or that they are free from hidden prejudices.

These steps should be followed by changes to the formal and informal systems that have traditionally held women (and some men) back, including:

-Instituting a formal process for identifying and promoting candidates of both genders for leadership positions.

-Setting percentage goals for meaningful leadership positions so that there is greater diversity at the true governing levels in law firms

-Identifying the characteristics of successful partners and leaders so that women (and men who are not "connected" to power sources within the firm) understand what it takes to be successful in the culture of their firm (i.e. books of business, managing teams, practice group status within the firm, management skills, who you know).

-Creating formal job descriptions for leadership positions that describe the roles and the qualifications for leadership positions.

-Insisting on formal succession planning for long-term client relationships.

-Formally and publicly monitoring (and measuring) who is chosen to go on client pitches and who works on matters that result from those pitches.

-Requiring a systemized and monitored approach to assignments for significant matters.

-Rewarding partners for bringing new attorneys into client relationships and for promoting diverse teams.

Second, women have to take a more active role in managing and advancing their own careers by:

-Coming into law firms with a career plan.

-Expressing interest early in their careers for firm leadership positions

-Actively engaging with leaders in the firm--setting up lunches or meetings with firm leaders, inviting them to events, getting to know them so they know you.

-Using women's initiatives to pressure firms into expanding leadership and opportunities within the firm and with clients for women.

-Taking leadership roles outside the firm in bar associations, industry groups, and on boards.

-Advising superiors of one's leadership capabilities and achievements.

-Asking to be included in client pitches.

-Affirmatively courting clients, particularly women in leadership positions at clients.

-Developing a reputation in practice areas through writing, speaking and appearing at client events.

-Promoting other women to the powers that be in the firm.

Simply put, firms have to commit publicly to making leadership and client opportunities available to all qualified attorneys, and eliminating the "token" women spots that firms use to show they are diverse. And women need to ask for opportunities. We have to say to the Wizard, "since you are leaving town in that balloon, how about I take over as Queen of Oz." But, of course, we should keep the ruby red slippers--because there is nothing wrong with a leader who has some style.

206040 Patricia Gillette is the founder of the Opt In Project. She is a labor and employment partner at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe. She can be contacted at [email protected].

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Patricia Gillette hit the nail right on the head; in order to make change, efforts have to be "top down" and "bottom up."

I would add that women's initiatives should offer solid content, thereby providing women the tools to advance their careers. Research shows that while what we call "The Tiara Syndrome" - keeping your head down, delivering great results and hoping that someone will notice and place a tiara on your head - doesn't work, nor does it work to "self-promote" in a way that doesn't fit expectations about how women should behave in the workplace. BTW, both men and women share these stereotypical beliefs about how women should behave.

True leaders don't ask for recognition or things that benefit themselves directly. They take care of the team. If Dorothy had asked for anything for herself your point about her being a leader would be ridiculous. This author's logic is so tortured, it borders on incoherent.

The missing link here is clients. Nothing is going to change until those with the real power--clients--view women as leaders, rather than playing supporting roles on matters as is typically the case. Even women in-house counsel still tend to view the proverbial 55 year old white male as necessarily the lead trial lawyer, while the woman partner with 20 years experience writes the briefs. BTDT too many times to count.

Up to "how can we break the barriers..." I'm inclined toward the author and following I'm inclined toward David that leaders do not ask for succession plans of client lists, formally monitoring assignments and pitches, or using initiatives to pressure firms, all of which smacks of entitlement culture and would set women and firms back decades.

A couple of the authors final remarks have merit where women take responsibility and actively engage, but otherwise I don't see why women with the authors view don't open their own firm and promote their own values to professionally compete.

As a female sole practitioner, I can personally attest to the fact that it is much harder for women to garner clients. I have also worked in BigLaw & I have witnessed female attorneys being treated like glorified secretaries.

Although we've made strides in this profession, I believe sexism is still rampant. For example, I recently sent several resumes out -- one set under my initials, one set under my full name. Guess which set received significantly more responses?

I'm surprised that no one mentioned the other problematic orientation that Dorothy had: "There's no place like home." Women need to stop yearning for someone else to take care of them and understand that they need to take care of themselves. Women who choose family over career are taking a big gamble with their future happiness and financial security once the children are up and grown. If men can have both family and career so can women. Men just need to start doing their fair share at home. That's where the real progress needs to be made in order for women to be able to compete at work without one arm tied behind their back.

What a false argument! Dorothy wanted to go home, that's what she asked for and that's what she got. Maybe her choice wasn't good enough for Ms. Gillette, but it was what it was good enough for her.

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