Women in the Law

Are women lawyers paying enough attention to upward mobility?

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Susan Smith Blakely

Susan Smith Blakely.

Editor’s note: This column reflects the opinions of the author, and not the views of the ABA Journal – or the American Bar Association. The ABA is deeply committed to securing the full and equal participation of women in the ABA, the profession and the justice system. The ABA Journal is committed to covering all issues of importance to women in the law, and we acknowledge the many concerns expressed to us by those offended by this piece.

Read a response to this column from ABA President Patricia Lee Refo here.

The number of women graduating from law schools and joining the profession of law are at record highs today, and that is very good news. Women were denied access to law schools and bars for too long, and the profession lost out on a lot of talent in those early years.

Women lawyers are generally highly motivated, remarkably organized, detail oriented, are effective time managers, and they typically do well in structured environments like law practices. These traits, together with outstanding entry-level performance, are positive signs of upwardly mobile career paths and cause for celebration from the generations of women lawyers who came before them.

But more seasoned women lawyers know that getting the job and demonstrating potential is only the beginning. While developing leadership skills and climbing the promotion ladder is the goal for many women lawyers, they must be strategic.

The pitfalls

There are pitfalls. What works for women lawyers in the early years of practice may not work as well for them throughout their careers. And that is particularly true for women who choose to have children. There is nothing that can derail a career faster than the responsibilities of motherhood—ask any successful woman lawyer with children. It is a game changer that can cause very busy women lawyers to lose focus.

I applaud lawyer moms for their best efforts in keeping all the balls in the air. But I also know that they can get sidetracked; they have to take the long view more often than they do. Living only in the moment is a bad idea when it comes to professional growth and career advancement.

Career vs. job

A career is more than a job. A successful career has a path and an uphill trajectory. In private practice, that trajectory is associate to junior partner (or some similar salaried position) to equity partner. Some firms limit partnership to the equity class, and that can make the runway even longer in terms of talent recognition and reward.

And a career is not just about personal success. More and more law firms are taking the team approach, and all members of the team have to be able to count on each other. Team members have to know that help is around the corner, and that emails will be returned with valuable information and in time to put out the wildfires. And those requirements are equally true for women lawyers—whether they have children or not.

Motherhood is demanding. Too often, lawyer moms are so stretched and overscheduled that they cannot easily find time in their days to assist others. They focus on their own workloads and maximize their time between arrival at the office/logging in and leaving the office/logging out. Many of them do not take lunch breaks or have many conversations with colleagues, and they lose interest in promoting new work for the law firm, developing clients and attending firm social events. They are exhausted.

Although many lawyer moms may have spouses and mates who help ease their burden at home, little children typically look to Mommy for on-time meals, rides to school before the morning bell rings, checking homework, and general comfort and care. And that is especially true when Daddy is a busy professional, too.

Although COVID-19 is responsible for gross disruptions to professional and personal lives, and the burden on women lawyers was increased during COVID-19 when working from home often included additional caretaking and teaching responsibilities, things will get back to some degree of normalcy soon. Offices will open up with varied models, and the responsibilities for interaction with colleagues and clients will increase. And the lawyer moms will be expected to meet the challenge just like everyone else.

Finding the time for all that lawyer moms have to do is challenging. However, it is often the case that they are their own worst enemies. They typically are perfectionists, and they end up sacrificing good performance on the altar of perfection.

It is better to do the job well than to obsess over doing the job to perfection, whether it is at the office or at home. There just does not seem to be any other way to meet all the commitments of being a lawyer mom, and chances are that a best good effort will be enough to keep a place on the promotion ladder.

Leadership potential as the path to promotion

Two of the attributes examined during the decision-making process for promotion from one level of practice to another are success on a team and effective mentoring. Both are strong indicators of leadership potential, and without quality leadership and client development, law firm succession plans suffer. So promotion committees take these things very seriously.

When counseling young lawyers, many of them complain about the low quality of feedback they receive from managers. The young lawyers are concerned about the impact on their own careers from this inattention and perceived lack of caring, and the managers they most often complain about are the lawyer moms.

But it is not only the young associates who notice. Promotion committees understand that a manager who shows little interest in the careers of his or her reports impacts the “growth mindset” considered essential to the upward mobility of young lawyers and success for the firm.

The “growth mindset” versus “fixed mindset” debate is fairly new, but it embodies old concepts. It is now recognized that a growth mindset is the belief that abilities are malleable, and that people can gain knowledge and improve skills over time with work and determination. By contrast, a fixed mindset is the belief that abilities are largely innate and can’t be changed much or at all.

It stands to reason that the management and leadership of most law firms would embrace a growth mindset because it allows for talent and leadership development. And if that is true, those same law firms should want to help junior lawyers gain knowledge and improve their skills with the assistance of more seasoned practitioners.

Effective mentoring and leadership are essential to successful business models, and as challenging as it can be for lawyer moms, they must be willing to be team players and invest time in the careers of others.

Risky business

To do anything less is very risky. As lawyer moms strategize about their career paths, they must be aware of the pitfalls. They must understand that the choices they make in their personal lives, no matter how praiseworthy, can impact their professional upward mobility. They must make time for success in their professional lives, as well as their personal lives.

A wise man, the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, is credited with saying that to lead people you must walk behind them. And I would add this nuance—to lead people you must walk behind them with dignity, decency and grace and with a firm understanding of who you are leading and how to help them become the next generation of leaders.

Middle-level lawyer moms are key components to achieving this goal. They should keep their eyes on their career goals, embrace opportunities to demonstrate leadership potential, and continue the climb the ladder of success that was interrupted by the pandemic. They should be the survivors and future leaders we know they can be.

Susan Smith Blakely is a former partner, law career counselor and the author of the Best Friends at the Bar book series for female lawyers. Her most recent book is What Millennial Lawyers Want: A Bridge from the Past to the Future of Law Practice.

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