Here are a few things young women lawyers can keep in mind as they work their way through and upward in the legal profession.
1. Harness Your Passion
As much as you can, work on matters you care about and believe will contribute to a better society. In general, lawyers are passionate people and they do their best work when their hearts are in it. If you are called upon to work on something you really think is hurtful to the public good, think hard about asking for a reprieve. We have seen young lawyers do that both in private practice and in government and gain respect, but it carries a risk, as do most things that will set you apart from your peers.
2. Build Your Skillset Early
Develop a valuable skill early on that you can use throughout your career. For instance, get litigation experience even if you don’t plan to be a litigator. The courts are still the ultimate forum for legal issues and the confidence of holding your own in court is a useful component of working in counselling, mediation and even in academic circles. If you are interested in doing trial work, do it early in your career; it’s more difficult to jump into once you have done other types of work. If not litigation, try to become a standout in an area so colleagues and supervisors will think of you immediately when they need a particular skill.
3. Be Honest
Be a straight shooter in analyzing, discussing and writing your legal research and conclusions. In the long run, trying to please your superiors or clients by withholding your honest conclusions will not enhance your reputation.
4. Get the Credit You Deserve
It’s important, perhaps more so for women starting legal careers, to get your name out there so when opportunities arise, you will come to mind in various circles. That could mean publishing in your own name articles or op-eds in legal and bar publications or holding offices in legal or civic organizations. We are told too often, “don’t worry about the credit, just get the work done”; that is not always good advice and if you heed it too literally you will be taken advantage of.
5. Meet Your Leaders
Participation in bar activities is virtually a sine qua non of upward mobility in the profession. It is a means of keeping abreast of what’s happening in your area, what opportunities in public law may be opening up, meeting the bar leaders who can support you in your candidacies for public office or judgeships and Bar work opens new vistas for young lawyers whose day jobs may be confining.
6. Make Every Relationship Count
Treat everyone you meet in your professional life with appropriate respect; you may be surprised how they can influence your success. It is the staff even more than the principals who can often determine your access to information and outcomes. Treat internal firm relationships just like external clients: as you are rising in the firm and in your career, your most important source of business and opportunities will come from your colleagues within your firm. Give them your highest priority and return their calls and emails as quickly as you would your external clients. Conversely, if you are the subject of unfair or discriminatory treatment in the workplace, particularly if it is gender based, you owe it to yourself and other women to do something about it; workplace rules have improved greatly in my lifetime but old mores linger in dark corners of the profession and need to be challenged.
7. Own Your Professional Development
Take ownership of your own professional development. Don’t wait around for someone to mentor you or come to you with opportunities for advancement. Set goals for yourself and then identify the key experience, skills and opportunities you need to obtain to achieve those goals. Create your own strategic plan for your professional development. If you need inspiration, look for role models to help you develop your own style. The “typical” or “stereotypical’ lawyer may not be the kind of lawyer you want to be. Give yourself permission to invent yourself, rather than feeling constrained by tradition.
8. Leverage Your Resources
Develop client relationships of your own: the single most critical key to success in a law firm is having your own business and fee generation. This can come from existing firm clients with whom you have developed your own important relationships and who seek you out to work on their matters. But it is also important to develop external relationships with contacts who may either become referral sources or may be in a position to send business to you or the firm.
Though the times are changing the figures still show, we are not at the halcyon heights of equality just yet. It will still take an extra spring in your steps up the ladder to make it to the top, but you will make it. Make sure along the way you make room for a life outside the law-for family, significant others, friends, non-legal civic responsibilities. The law can be a lonely life without them.
The authors of this story are Katherine A. Mazzaferri, former CEO of the D.C. Bar; Amy Bess, Chair of D.C. Bar Pro Bono Committee and Shareholder at Vedder Price; and Patricia Wald, Chief Judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. All three woman have worked in the legal industry for over 30 years and have vast experience in how women can advance their careers.