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How to be a better leader for young female lawyers

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Editor's note: In the newest book of her Best Friends at the Bar series, Susan Smith Blakely continues her quest to raise the retention rates for women lawyers, shifting her focus to law firm leaders and their responsibility to help women meet the challenges of law practice. Here is an edited excerpt from Chapter 8, “What Law Firm Leaders Should Be Telling Women Lawyers: The Brass Tacks.”

 Find the complete reprint along with more articles for practicing attorneys in the digital edition of our 2016 Lawyer & Statesman

Plan early and make good choices

It all starts with a plan. For most people, planning is critical, and it is especially important for young women lawyers. Their lives will become very complicated once they are faced with family and child care responsibilities, and having a plan (even a flexible, evolving plan) will make them feel more secure and prepared to deal with what lies ahead.

Planning early and often is key to a successful career, and the planning should start long before the young women are faced with critical choices. Help them with this planning, steer them toward realistic expectations and choices, and give them support and encouragement. Avoid value judgments about individual choices and career plans, and emphasize that the only bad choice is no choice, and the only bad plan is no plan.

If a young woman shares with you her interest in having children (Caveat: You should not initiate the conversation about this or related subjects), discuss “having it all” and what that means to her — and to you. After all, you are the wise counsel in

the room. So act like it. If you do not think that having it all is realistic, even for male practitioners, explain that to her and elicit her thoughts on the subject. These are topics that young lawyers need to talk about so that they are not so afraid of them and of their professional futures.

Develop personal definitions of success

Women lawyers must be thoughtful in defining success according to their own individual circumstances, and they need to stay true to their objectives. The most important consideration in defining their professional goals is deciding what will satisfy them professionally and also allow them to continue in the profession to satisfy their long-terms goals.

Each woman is unique, and the circumstances and responsibilities in her personal life are different from those of her colleagues. If women lawyers are going to ignore their individual needs and circumstances to please others or to aspire to some stereotype of success, many of them are going to be very disappointed with the results. The responsibilities that many women lawyers have in their personal lives for child care, elder care, and special-needs family members are significant and cannot be ignored.

The truth is, however, that women lawyers will not have many choices in terms of their “personal definitions of success” unless law firms encourage cultures that value a variety of work models. The availability of part-time practice and flexible, alternative work schedules, which allow women to move in and out of those various models as the demands of their personal lives change, is key.

It will take full-time practitioners, both male and female, “buying into” the flexible hours or part-time programs and supporting the young women lawyers who need those arrangements to keep their careers alive.

It will take firms and other employers understanding that women lawyers do not become less in terms of talent and long-range value to the firm simply because they have significant home and family responsibilities. Their brains do not atrophy when they become mothers.

All women lawyers want quality work and to be treated as valuable professionals. They do not want to be on a “mommy track” and be stuck with boring and repetitious work that does not satisfy their professional objectives just because some old-school partner thinks that mommies cannot handle important work. They can handle it, and they will — but they may have to work fewer hours per week and be paid less for the fewer hours worked. That is fair, and fair is all they should be asking for.

It is a two-way street. Law firms will have to think of women on part-time and flexible schedules as valuable resources, who will return to work full time after the really challenging work-life years; and women lawyers will have to demonstrate trustworthy behavior and keep their promises about returning to work so that law firms can do long-range planning. The young women have to be encouraged to be honest and up front with their firms if they want the firms to treat them with the same degree of honesty and respect.

Of course, to talk intelligently and sincerely with young women lawyers about personal definitions of success, leaders will have to be able to see success as something beyond power and money. Here is some food for thought to help in those conversations.

Recently, Arianna Huffington, editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post, addressed graduates at Smith College about redefining success. She described success as a three-legged stool: money, power, and well-being/ giving back to society. According to her, without the third leg of well-being and giving back, the stool will topple over. She challenged young women not to settle for just breaking through glass ceilings in a broken corporate system or a broken political system but to change the system by getting to the bottom of what is wrong with it. 

Susan Smith Blakely is a lawyer, author, speaker and career coach. She is
a graduate of University of Wisconsin and Georgetown University Law Center. She can be reached through her website, www.bestfriendsatthebar.com

 Find the complete reprint along with more articles for practicing attorneys in the digital edition of our 2016 Lawyer & Statesman