Creating Space at the Table: Succeeding as a female in the still-male-dominated field of law
Growing up far from the big city in Delmar, New York, I did not know many lawyers, and I certainly knew of no lawyers to emulate. Back then I would have never dreamt of becoming a managing partner in a successful law firm. But here I am, thanks to the sound advice from mentors who saw my potential and helped me forge my way.
While I had many colleagues and mentors willing to lend their expertise early in my journey, few female lawyers held leadership roles, and I struggled to picture myself in such a position. Most of my mentors early on were men, who kindly shared their unique perspectives with me and set challenges before me, while I endeavored to make my mark in the industry.
While I’m grateful to these men for sharing their time and talent with me, it’s critical to point out that today, nearly 20 years later, the ratio of male to female lawyers is still far from balanced. Men continue to outnumber women in the legal industry 61.5% to 38.3%. Consequently, much like in my early days, few female mentors are available to usher in the next generation of female lawyers.
Fortunately, as the managing partner for a leading workers’ compensation defense firm, I find myself in a position to inspire change, create opportunities and break down barriers for women in the law. In sharing our experiences and providing insightful advice, we can generate more opportunities for other aspiring female lawyers and move our industry forward.
Seize the opportunity
I did not start my journey with the intention of following the pre-law track. In fact, it was the advice of a well-meaning professor that set me on the path to pre-law. That professor recognized my drive and tenacity and pushed me to follow the same path.
That push set me on track for a summer internship with a local judge who gave me advice that changed my career; advice that I still live by to this day. The judge advised me to say yes to every assignment and opportunity. Taking that advice both ushered me out of my comfort zone and helped me earn my first major win in the insurance space.
As a young associate with Jones Jones, I was working to make a name for myself litigating multiple workers’ compensation cases a day. I was litigating a complicated construction case for a client that involved a complex coverage issue, a topic I had not yet had the opportunity to face as an attorney. As one of the only women on the case, I shared some new issues and potential solutions that ended up helping us win the case for our client. Consequently, the client’s lead risk manager invited me to present on the case to his senior leadership team, a task that was—at that time—outside of my comfort zone, both as a young attorney and as the only woman in the room. Following my mentor’s advice, I took the opportunity.
That win, and my subsequent presentation, created a strong foundation for our organization’s relationship with this client, who remains with our firm to this day. It also opened a new avenue of business for the firm in the construction space.
Saying yes to that opportunity taught me a valuable lesson: Seizing opportunities is not just about what is directly in front of you. It is about creating opportunities and space for yourself and others for the future. As women in a male-dominated field, we are not always in the room or invited to the table when things happen. We need to push the envelope, take a seat at the table and, in doing so, create space for those who come after us. This opportunity did just that; it changed my career path and allowed me to find a certain level of success.
Advice to my younger self
Despite a network of distinguished mentors, coming up in a male-dominated industry had its challenges. Looking back, three pieces of advice I would offer to any young, ambitious female attorney would include:
1. Set boundaries
I will forever continue to see the value in seizing every opportunity. I have learned, however, it is also important to set boundaries in an industry as competitive as the law, where people will forgo meals and sleep to get ahead. When you are mindful of your own needs, you will have more energy to show up to work as your best self. For example, I have set Mondays as my organization day for the week. I go through my priorities for the week, consult both my personal and professional schedules and spend time with my children to get a pulse on where they are for the week. While I still work and give the same level of attention to my clients, what this means is that I make sure I don’t set calls when my children will be home, primarily after 5 p.m. It is important to note that setting boundaries does not mean that work is not a priority; it simply means you are taking care of yourself and your family so that you can continue to put the same level of effort and attention towards your work.
2. Ask for help
Asking for help can build comradery among peers and bring new, valuable perspectives to the table. For instance, if I had not been asked for my help on the complex coverage issue all those years ago, the different perspective I brought to the table may not have been explored and we may not have won the case. But before turning to someone else for the answer, be sure you’ve conducted your own thorough search. A mentor once suggested that I consult at least two separate sources for the answer before asking for help. In conducting your own independent research, if you are unable to find the answer yourself, you will now be prepared to have a productive conversation about the issue grounded in your research. Additionally, you may learn something you did not previously know that could help you in the future.
3. Be prepared
It should go without saying that no attorney should ever go into a meeting, deposition or court appearance blind, but even if you think you have prepared for a meeting or a case, likely, it wouldn’t hurt to do more. Research every individual, read everything you can get your hands on and enter every meeting, deposition or court appearance with as much knowledge as possible. Setting boundaries and asking for help can be key for success when preparing.
Simply, be better than everyone else in the room. Self-care, good advice and preparation can help ensure you are set for success.
The legal industry is changing, not quite as fast as you or I might like, but it is changing. It is equally important that we change with it. By seizing the opportunities set before us and taking a seat at the table, we can ensure there is more space for others to share their stories, set boundaries, ask for help and find success. That starts by showing up—for ourselves and countless other women in our industry.
Sarah Thomas is managing partner at Jones Jones. She leads the firm through the evolving technicalities of workers’ compensation and insurance defense law.
ABAJournal.com is accepting queries for original, thoughtful, nonpromotional articles and commentary by unpaid contributors to run in the Your Voice section. Details and submission guidelines are posted at “Your Submissions, Your Voice.”
This column reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal—or the American Bar Association.