The Road to Professional Success in a Law Firm

April 29, 2014Articles The Legal Inteligencer

According to the 2014 National Association of Women Lawyers Survey on Retention and Promotion of Women in Law Firms, since the mid-1980s, more than 40 percent of law school graduates have been women. Consistent with this number, the National Association for Law Placement reports that women accounted for 45 percent of summer associates in 2013. Sounds promising, right?

In stark contrast to these statistics, NAWL reports that, in 2013, women made up approximately 17 percent of equity partners, continue to be given less credit than men for client origination, and earn 85 percent to 95 percent of what male equity partners earn.

While these numbers are purely averages and do not represent the situation at every law firm, they do paint a sobering picture of the legal profession. Overall, these numbers demonstrate that while women excel in law school and secure almost half of all summer associate positions at law firms, they do not achieve similar results as they progress professionally in terms of partnership, billing credit or compensation. This article provides practical guidance—from our perspectives as a partner and an associate, with a collective 30 years in practice—about what women attorneys can do throughout their careers to bridge this gap. There is certainly no "one size fits all" approach for any lawyer or law firm, but there are fundamental strategies used by many successful attorneys, both women and men, that can drive a path to success.

Focus on the Foundation

Law school prepares students to become good lawyers. During the first few years of practice, law firms train lawyers to focus on producing quality work, which serves as the crucial foundation for any lawyer. Being a good lawyer is the first critical step on your path to success. Recognize, however, that performing quality legal work is just a start and that you will also need to develop certain other qualities to distinguish yourself within your law firm and the legal marketplace.

Find Your Niche

What area of the law do you really enjoy? Can you specialize in that area? Think about these questions in your early years of practice and decide how best to prepare yourself to become a go-to lawyer in your firm and in the marketplace. While we are both litigators, we have developed particular niches in real-estate-related litigation and data privacy that have allowed us to establish a host of focused professional connections. Developing a niche offers you an opportunity to distinguish yourself and develop a practice area that allows you to attract clients. Put simply, from a client development standpoint, it is far more effective and attractive to describe yourself as a real estate litigator or data privacy attorney rather than as a general litigator.

Being knowledgeable in a certain and sometimes unique area allows you to broadcast exactly what you do and how you do it, while also providing potential clients with information about how your services can help them. Reinforce your position as the go-to lawyer in a particular area by speaking and writing on the topic. Seize every possible opportunity to position yourself and demonstrate your niche. Whether you are a partner or an associate, being able to describe yourself as a having a specific area of focus positions you to be the attorney who can most effectively serve a client's legal needs.

Business Development 101

Focus on business development early and often. Business development is not a practice that begins later in your career, nor is it an activity that takes a few hours here and there. Rather, business development should become a mindset that is integral to your daily practice. As a more junior associate, business development may mean staying in touch with college and law school classmates and expanding your network through involvement in bar association activities, service on boards or other community efforts. As you develop professionally, you should identify and engage in business development activities that are most conducive to your personality, and consider broadening your efforts to include those that may expand your reach and your network. As a woman attorney who may also be juggling significant personal or family responsibilities at this point in her career, choosing business activities that are focused on producing a return is particularly important. Potential clients are everywhere—on ball fields, at your children's school and at neighborhood and family events. Nearly every social gathering is an opportunity to market yourself and develop business. Even if your time and energy are limited, being selective, but consistently involved, can produce results.

Don't Go It Alone

Seek mentors or sponsors as you progress through each and every step of your career. Although there is no steadfast rule that women should have mentors who are also women, there may be some benefit to observing and interacting with someone who faces challenges similar to the ones that you face on a daily basis. However, as the NAWL statistics show, in many firms there are simply fewer women partners available to mentor junior attorneys. Be open to having a male mentor and certainly look for mentors and sponsors outside of your firm. It is far more important to find someone, regardless of gender or firm status, who will provide guidance and advice and, in turn, support and promote your career. As a junior attorney, you should not be shy about seeking out mentors or sponsors and asking them for guidance. Study what makes your mentor successful and adopt those practices. As a more senior attorney, you should recognize and embrace the responsibility to foster the growth of junior attorneys.

Lean In To Lead

Strive to become a leader in your firm and community. NAWL reports that women earn 85 percent to 95 percent of what male equity partners earn. Interestingly, however, the high end of 95 percent represents firms that have at least two women on their governance committee, while the low end of 85 percent represents firms that do not. Based upon these numbers, if more women are promoted to leadership positions, it may be possible to improve the statistics reported by NAWL. As an associate, sitting on a governance committee is likely not an option. However, building your resume early on by participating in firm and community activities will certainly help position you as a candidate for leadership positions within your firm later in your career. As a partner, reach for leadership opportunities that allow you to impact firm governance. Encouraging and maintaining a diverse work force helps to attract and retain new clients and recruit talented attorneys. Actively participating in the management of your firm is one critical way to achieve diversity.

Work-Life Balance: Is It A Myth?

In short, no, although it may seem that way for attorneys who spend considerable time in the office as they tackle the learning curve of the legal profession and build their practices. There is no question that work-life balance is something that will need to be continually addressed and reprioritized as you progress in your career. There is also no question that achieving that balance can be elusive, particularly when handling family responsibilities. Nevertheless, it is important to make time for hobbies and other activities outside the office. Not only will you be more fulfilled personally, but being able to demonstrate that you are able to do more than log billable hours allows you to position yourself for client development and leadership opportunities in your firm and community.

If the past 30 years serve as a guide, we expect (and hope) that women will enter the legal profession in at least equal numbers to men. Based on that same history, it is unlikely that women will achieve the same results in terms of partnership, billing credit and compensation overnight. However, we have seen many women attorneys—partners and associates—succeed by applying the principles discussed here. These women help to bridge the gap and produce more diverse law firms and a more diverse marketplace for legal services—a result that benefits lawyers, law firms and clients.

Reprinted with permission from the April 29 issue of The Legal Intelligencer. (c) 2014 ALM Media Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.