15 Tips for Women in the Profession

From The Practice May/June 2015
Legal leaders share their thoughts

How can women maximize their options in the legal profession? Elizabeth “Betsy” Munnell (HLS ‘79) is a former rainmaker for the Boston firm Edwards Angell Palmer & Dodge, where she helped build the firm’s media and communications finance practice. Munnell coaches women students at Harvard Law School and Boston University Law School. Below, Munnell, Sandra Yamate (HLS ‘84), Nancy Gertner, Amy Schulman, and other women interviewed for this issue of The Practice share their expertise.

1.  Build a network sooner rather than later.

Elizabeth “Betsy” Munnell, former rainmaker for the Boston firm Edwards Angell Palmer & Dodge
Elizabeth “Betsy” Munnell

Network: you’ve heard this one before. But Munnell emphasizes that networking is about building relationships, both within a firm and externally, and connects those relationships to two other areas of practice women may find challenging: self-promotion and generating revenue. The point, she says, is not to be “sales-y,” but to “make contact. Make a connection.”

Associates at large firms are often told not to worry about generating business—that it’s too early to be involved in groups outside the office or build a reputation. “That’s very, very bad advice,” she says. “People go to business school to begin to build that network, and they leave and get going right away. Young lawyers are told you’re too young for that when they’re already three years out of college, if not more. They need to get on with it.”

“I’m not suggesting connecting with people you don’t like or don’t want to know,” Munnell cautions. But “the techniques of networking are really not that complicated. It’s a question of personal style. Each individual has to develop a strategy in consultation with people whose advice they value.”

Start locally, Munnell says, within your law school alumni and others in the legal community with whom you have something in common. Then, have a plan. “Having the strategy for building a practice is the most important thing,” she says. “Take the critical members of your existing network and think about whether you are maintaining those relationships and growing them. Then add, little by little, other possible rich areas for developing contacts. That means that you’re looking to have an expanded presence within the marketplace. It could mean the community in which you are active, because it has very promising resources for possible clients, or people who can refer clients to you.”

Some people build referral networks because of the nature of their practice, she says, while others approach clients directly. It may depend on the work you’re in—some smaller firms or boutiques serve large firms, and others serve the end user directly. As you do this, she says, “you begin to fashion an understanding of the network you need developed that will offer you visibility and help enhance your reputation and get the word out as to your value as a lawyer.”

Munnell’s steps to success: “Make a plan. Build a network. Figure out ways to develop your reputation and visibility, and then pursue them strategically.” Public speaking, writing, blogging, and leadership within a community organization are great tools for increasing visibility, she says.

If you’re looking to build a book of business, Munnell notes, you need to approach networking deliberately. “If it’s not going to be a source of business, then unfortunately the time you have is short. You probably need to think in terms of allocating your time to something that does.”

Sandra Yamate, CEO of the Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession, agrees that relationships are crucial. But it’s important to move beyond affinity groups. “We all need to learn to network beyond our comfort zone, because it enriches our lives and it allows us to oftentimes develop warm and very rewarding friendships and relationships that otherwise we would miss.”

2.  Make the most of the first four to six months as a new associate. Volunteer to be seen.

If you’re heading into your first job, the first four to six months are crucial. “That’s when everyone forms their first impressions and decides who is going to get the best work, whom they’re going to mentor, and whom they might sponsor,” Munnell says. “You have to shine in the first six months of your job. Everyone does, because it’s first-impression time.”

Strong legal work is a given. Aside from that, one of the best areas to focus on, Yamate notes, is building strong relationships at your firm. One way to do so is by volunteering for career-building tasks. Don’t take the minutes at a meeting, Munnell suggests. Instead, “volunteer to do things within the firm that are visible in a good way.” Organize an event that has meaning, such as a business development function that contributes to the bottom line. Be involved in the recruiting committee, or volunteer to write an article with a partner. “If you work on a transaction, volunteer to report back on it at the practice group or departmental meeting, and then practice. Treat that as a speech so that you can speak off-the-cuff, and memorize the whole thing.” Do that, she says, and “you will be an executive.”

3.  Take business courses and read the news every day.

While those new to practice may still be learning the law, it’s easy to learn about broader business issues—and that’s the way to make a good impression with clients. Social media, Munnell suggests, can help you gather detailed, insider knowledge of a topic. Read the news to follow the companies and industries you work with. Then allow that knowledge to inform your work. “Go read all about the client you’re preparing to meet with,” Munnell says. “You will do better on your feet. But you have to affirmatively display it. Get the impression out there, and then you will be given the benefit of the doubt moving forward.”

“Get the conversation over to something you know a whole lot about,” Munnell counsels the women she mentors. Then ask questions that demonstrate your knowledge of the client or the industry the client is involved in: “I’ve noticed that the client is on an acquisition binge. Where do you think they’re going to go next?”

Learn accounting and how to read a financial statement, she also suggests. (Employers overwhelmingly look for such expertise, according to a study done by three Harvard Law professors.) Wharton has put its entire first-year MBA curriculum online on Coursera—it can be taken on your own time and awards a certificate. Harvard Law School has followed suit, recently announcing a partnership with Harvard Business School to teach law students business fundamentals.

“I think women, if they were better situated to advise businesses, would stand out more,” Munnell says. An understanding of basic business concepts will help you distinguish yourself “not as a lawyer, not as a person who drafts great briefs or does phenomenal research, but as a person who understands the broader picture and has a more sophisticated understanding of the world and the global economy.”

4.  Study negotiation. Play poker.

Negotiation skills can be learned. (See the Project on Negotiation, for example.) To that end, Munnell says, one professor at Harvard Law School teaches women students to play poker.

Erin Walczewski, professional development manager at Cooley in Boston
Erin Walczewski

“I think for women in negotiations the key is to prepare as much as possible,” says Erin Walczewski (HLS ’10), a professional development manager at Cooley in Boston who has taught negotiation courses at Harvard and other schools. Doing so is the better part of confidence and leverage.

“Something we see across the board from both men and women is this somewhat dismissive idea that it’s just a negotiation—you don’t need to prepare for it,” Walczewski notes. “But what I have seen in negotiation is that the person who is more prepared is the person who often has the upper hand, simply because they thought through in advance: what are my interests? What are the other side’s interests? How can I propose something that’s likely to be accepted by the other side because it meets some of the criteria that I know will be important to them at least acceptably, but then also meets my side’s interests really, really well?”

5.  Find a mentor—and check in if you’re thinking of leaving.

Evidence suggests role models are essential to success as a leader. Mentors can also help when you’re considering a career move. Walczewski encourages women to speak with a trusted mentor at their firm, particularly when they’re thinking about leaving. It’s possible your firm will work with you to make adjustments to work, teams, or supervising partners. “When I say reach out to someone, I mean a trusted someone who cares about you and your career, not just necessarily the person who is in charge of your practice group or who is the head of your department or your firm,” she says.

“Firms expend a lot of effort, time, and money and other resources to attract, recruit, and retain attorneys,” she says. “I think they’d like to be given the chance to prevent some attrition if they can. Sometimes departing associates, particularly women departing associates, would be surprised to hear that things could have been different if they had involved somebody else.” There’s no need to advertise that you’re considering leaving, she says, but “recognize your own value and recognize if you still like the work. There’s no reason you have to throw the baby out with the bathwater and just assume that law firm life isn’t for you. It may be just that the set up you have currently isn’t for you.”

6.  Be flexible, but set limits.

It’s not impossible to combine a career in the law with a flexible schedule. Some might suggest certain types of practice aren’t appropriate for flex work. For example, they say transactional work is too complex and time-pressured, or that litigators won’t be able to fit a flexible schedule around the demands of appearing in court. But Carrie Fletcher, executive director at Harvard Law School’s Executive Education program, says flexible schedules can be adapted to different types of practice. “I did a flexible schedule as litigator for a bunch of years and it worked fine,” Fletcher says. “You just need to accept that you’re going to make it work, and then you figure out how to make it work.”

Firm support is essential, she says, but flexibility should be reciprocal. Fletcher worked a four-day week, with Wednesdays off. “What that meant on my end was that I always paid for five days of child care, because I might have to go in on any given Wednesday, and I understood that,” she says. “I was not going to say to a judge, ‘Oh, sorry, your Honor, I don’t go to court on Wednesdays,’ when he just set that hearing.” For weeks that need accommodation, you might switch your day off—take Tuesday, for example. If a deal deadline is approaching and you need to work extended hours, take proportional time off when the deal closes. “All of these things are a two-way street,” Fletcher emphasizes. “I think for firms who set up structures and support to make it work and who are honest with associates that this is a mutual give and take, you really can get things that work for people.”

Limits are important, too. Don’t make a habit of answering emails or taking calls on days off, Fletcher suggests, or you could end up right back at a full-time schedule—while not being paid for it. Fletcher set an out-of-office message for email on days out of the office; it included her cell phone number for emergencies. “People actually make a decision about how important it is when they have to pick up the phone and call you on your cell phone,” she says. “And 90 percent of the time they decide that they can wait until the next day. Over four or five years of doing this schedule, I probably got three calls on my cell phone for something that was actually urgent that happened on a day that I was out.”

7.  Be realistic about the demands of the job you want.

Amy Schulman, venture partner with Polaris Partners and CEO of Arsia Therapeutics
Amy Schulman

“Flexibility is hard,” says Amy Schulman, venture partner with Polaris Partners and CEO of Arsia Therapeutics. “The top jobs are demanding, there is limited institutional flexibility, and I definitely think there is a kind of tendency to say, ‘Listen, these are not enormously forgiving organizations generally.’ So, if you need a lot of accommodation, there’s a question at some point in the institution’s mind about whether you have whatever it takes. And I think women and men need to be realistic about that.”

On the other hand, she says, organizations need to uphold their end of the bargain, too. She tells the story of an accomplished attorney who had a three-day-a-week schedule. “I don’t know why it was impossible for the senior male partner to remember which days she was there, but inevitably, he scheduled team meetings on one of the days she wasn’t there. That kind of stuff is just ridiculous and completely unacceptable.”

As a leader now, she says, “I take real pleasure in giving people who work with me, men and women, latitude and permission that in many ways I didn’t have or didn’t perceive that I had when I was coming up through the ranks.” But that latitude has to take into account the needs of both the organization and those employed in it. “I think the right amount of flexibility is critical,” she says. “You have to couple that flexibility with a kind of hard-nosed reality about institutional flexibility, which can sometimes be a little bit different than the flexibility of a particular individual for whom you’re working.”

8.  Be a trusted advisor.

“It is not enough to be a very good lawyer anymore,” Munnell says. “It is not enough, in fact, to have gone to Harvard anymore. The credentials lose their punch a couple of years in because they’re just not enough. You need to make your mark, but not simply in the quality of the work that you deliver. You also need to make your mark as an individual who has the personal skills to effectively interact on an interpersonal level for your client.”

“The ultimate satisfaction for somebody who truly loves to be a lawyer, not somebody who wants to leave the law and become a business person,” she says, “is to be a trusted advisor. When you get to the top you’re representing the C suite, or you’re representing some other significant, powerful decision maker. To be a trusted advisor requires strategic understanding of their world that is not possible if you haven’t learned business skills along the way. If young women launch themselves upon the field of competition without those skills, they are already behind. If they launch with them, they are already ahead. That’s why it’s so important, because ultimately it takes you faster to that place.”

9.  Keep appearance and executive presence in perspective.

If you’re an associate closing in on partnership, Munnell suggests focusing on executive presence—an “irritating term,” she says, but a useful one. “I think executive presence is the most important concern for women. They need to understand what it is and what’s involved in achieving a style that commands respect and generates good will if you want to be both respected and liked.”

Executive presence doesn’t mean abandoning your personality, Munnell emphasizes—it means having confidence in your abilities and finding your own style of leadership. You don’t need to have a “profoundly magnetic” personality, Munnell explains, but “the important thing is to project confidence. I think the critical thing is to have a consistent style that has flexibility within it for dealing with different people.”

Women need to be able to run a room, she says:

Walk into a room—in which you are in charge, by the way, because you won’t take charge of a room you’re not supposed to be in charge of—and run it in an appropriate way. Sit down in front, at the end of the table, and begin a conversation to negotiate the terms. Can you run it so that you have ultimate control over it and the direction in which it will go, so that you can present immediately your power at the table in a way that does not make people crazy?

Humor can be a powerful tool in helping others become comfortable. “I was always loud and funny and a big teaser. I was a tomboy from day one and I wasn’t going to change my style,” Munnell says. (Judging by her tenure as a 25-year rainmaking partner, the approach worked.)

Yamate cautions, “I think we do need to be cognizant of how we present ourselves. But if it’s a question of coaching you to be more like the way other people want you to be, and it may not be the way you want to be, then you’re raising some different challenges.”

Nancy Gertner, retired federal judge who now teaches at HLS
Nancy Gertner

Nancy Gertner, a retired federal judge who now teaches at Harvard Law School, is known for her trademark red blazers. She encourages attorneys to be themselves. “I felt like the challenge of my generation was that we were going to be ourselves in the profession. The generation before us thought they had to wear ties, literally—man suits. I could wear whatever I wanted.”

The law is an appearance-focused profession. But women are often subject to undue focus on their looks, dress, and comportment in ways that men never are. Herminia Ibarra and Robin Ely of Harvard Business School point out that time spent worrying about image diminishes the energy you have to focus on something constructive. “People who focus on how others perceive them are less clear about their goals, less open to learning from failure, and less capable of self-regulation,” they write. Instead, they suggest, focus on your purpose: get clear on your goals, then invest energy in learning what you need to do to achieve them. (For more thoughts on women and careers from Ely, see “Lessons on Life and Leadership”.)

10.  Learn to cope with bias.

Unconscious bias and the tendency for people to prefer working with those who are like them can be obstacles when building relationships for women and women of color. “Understand that bias exists,” Yamate counsels, and “constantly be on guard for bias to crop up at unexpected and unforeseen times.” It’s important to “understand how it fits into the bigger picture of all our relationships,” she says, “but not to let the thought that we have to deal with it cripple us.”

It helps to be aware of the larger issues when confronting everyday bias, argues Gertner. “It’s not just a question of individual strategy to succeed. I’m in my late 60’s. We were the generation that had people tell you that you shouldn’t be a lawyer. The issues are far less clear today, only in the sense that there are no signs on the door that say, ‘Women need not apply.’ But basically, you’re dealing with the same lack of institutional support.”

11. Own your own career. Practice self-reliance.

Being self-reliant will help you deal with multiple challenges, Munnell teaches the women she coaches. “I talk to them a lot about the role of women in large firms. Rather than coaching them about the fundamental stress of being a female competing in an aggressively male environment, I’m really talking to them what they can do about it.”

In addition, controlling your own direction is one of the most powerful tools you can have in your career. “I really recommend that anybody, but particularly women, find the things that they’re good at and identify the things that their firm values, and then focus on the intersection of those two things,” Walczewski says.

12.  Fight imposter syndrome with affinity—but don’t call it support.

If you’re wondering when someone’s going to discover you don’t really belong in the law, that’s imposter syndrome. It’s common: everyone suffers from feelings of inadequacy, Munnell says—it’s just that men are less likely to talk about it.

Fight imposter syndrome by spending time with peers. At conferences, find older women mentors. You’ll realize that you’re not alone and that you belong, while the ability to share problems and experiences and get feedback will build confidence. Munnell calls it “co-mentoring”: “people interacting with people who are essentially equal, but some may be more experienced and have more to offer in the way of advice.”

But don’t call it support—at least not openly. Yamate points out that there’s a resistance to empathy in the legal profession. “Ours is a profession where weakness is scorned. You’re not supposed to show your vulnerability because you’re supposed to be a strong advocate, and so that empathy is treated like it’s a bad thing. Who wants to say, I have a lawyer who is sensitive and feels these emotions? No, you want killer sharks.”

As a result, efforts toward inclusivity may be more favorably received if they’re couched in gender-neutral terms. Affinity groups, peer or co-mentoring, or even informal opportunities to socialize among those with similar interests may be better received, while having the same effects.

13.  Get a little help from your friends, and help other women.

While men often feel comfortable calling one another and asking for a favor when they haven’t talked in years, Munnell says, women may be more reticent with their contacts. Consider yourself a member of a competitive workforce, building a career just like everybody else, she urges. “That involves being strategic in the way that you do business with each other.”

In addition, “women need to reach out to younger women,” she says. “The pleasure of it is enormous.” Munnell coaches women in law school for this reason. Helping other women can also bring a sense of accomplishment. Gertner describes being involved in the National Association of Women Judges. It was “intended to be a gathering for women judges, but not just a networking place,” she says. “It was not just white gloves and cocktails. The organization addressed women in prison, addressed reproductive rights, addressed economic equality.”

“Just being there was not enough,” Gertner says. “Just being the role model was not enough. You actually wanted to use the organization to do something for women.”

“Our responsibility as women to help each other is, I think, profound,” says Schulman. “It’s a pernicious and untruthful myth that women don’t help other women. I think it’s also equally the case that a network of women alone is unlikely to shatter the glass ceiling because so many positions of power are held by white men. And so, for those of us who have a seat at the table, the anxiety of being identified as a woman who helps other women—I think we just need to get over that and spend our political capital.”

Don’t be deterred if doing so raises questions, she advises. “I’m just as proud when men and women succeed. But the outside world reacts differently when I promote women than when I promote men. And if I scared easily, it would make me anxious, right? You just have to have that fortitude and belief that it’s the right thing to do.”

“Seeing young women succeed and spending some of the political capital that we, the generation of women in our 40’s and 50’s, have gathered, is one of the most satisfying components of being at this stage in our career,” Schulman continues. “I think that’s something that women are coming to recognize. Men have always been transactional players in the world of favors and connections, and women are learning that it’s a really important skill to spend that political capital, not just to gather it.”

14.  Don’t let anyone else define your success.

It’s important that lawyers in their early career “not let their idea of career success be defined by somebody else,” Yamate says. “They’re the ones who have to live their lives. If they do allow someone else to define success, at least be aware they’re doing that, so that if their career ends up getting sidetracked because they turn out not to be a rainmaker or they don’t get the mentoring or the coaching or the championing that they need, they understand what’s really going on.

“For a lot of women,” she notes, “we just may not be buying into that definition of what professional success is. I think we’re going to see that in younger generations, perhaps there’s less concern about making huge incomes. They want to be sure that they have time to do all the other things in life they find interesting and rewarding. That’s a healthy shift to me, but it’s something the legal profession will need to come to terms with. It’s not going to be our grandfathers’ legal profession.”

Walczewski echoes the sentiment. “I would say pursue what matters to you and not necessarily to your peers or what you think should matter to you, given what the industry or magazines or websites within the legal industry say. If you don’t care about the prestige of your title, then don’t let somebody else’s opinion deter you from making choices that make sense for your life.”

15.  If you believe you can do it, you probably can.

“If you really want to be a partner in a big law firm making beaucoup bucks,” Yamate says, “it’s not rocket science. In the early part of the 1980s, we thought it was a question of dressing for success. Then we thought, well, gee, you’ve got to learn how to talk about sports. Then we thought about being more assertive. These were all sort of red herrings put in the way. We’ve moved beyond that point now. It’s really more just a question of, we simply need to understand what it really takes to be successful in a particular career track, if that’s what we want, and then decide to do it.”

Nicole Bigby, a partner and general counsel at Berwin Leighton Paisner in London, encourages women to “take the risk. It may or may not succeed. And I think as women we need to be prepared for that. But perhaps be conscious that you may be setting your standards in light of whatever your internal natural reflexes are, or your internal perspective about what you think acceptable achievement is. Odds are good—and the statistics back it up—that where your perception is, and where you think the achievement levels are for you, are going to be a lot higher than what other people are seeing.”


The Making of Lawyers’ Careers: Inequality and Opportunity in the American Legal Profession

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