It's All About the Shoes

Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. She wouldn't be the first person to come to mind if I asked for the name of a female leader. Yet, when you think about it, she was a true leader - identifying the task that needed to be done, formulating a plan, and overcoming obstacles to reach the goal: a brain for the scarecrow, a heart for the tin man and courage for the cowardly lion. But what did Dorothy ultimately ask for herself from the Wizard? Nothing. Instead, she preempted his attempt to even try to reward her, and let the Wizard off the hook.

Some might say that this characterizes the stereotypical women leader. She builds teams. She encourages collaboration and consensus. She reaches resolution efficiently. And, at the end of the day, she asks for no credit, reward, or recognition. And thus, no one knows what she has done and no one thinks of her as a leader.

This lack of self promotion plays out in law firms to the detriment of women. Of course, truth be told, the old boys' club, the resentment that women would even ask for business or leadership opportunities are alive and well in most law firms. One need look no further than the statistics that have plagued our profession for years: 2% women as chairs of major lawfirms, 16% women partners in large law firms, the token "woman's seat" on the executive committee. Are men in law firms really so much more qualified than women n law firms that they should hold all the leadership positions? Are men in law firms really so much better at developing business that they should have the largest books? Of course not. They just have the power to decide who will get the nod for opportunities and who won't. That is a fact of life.

Of course, we are seeing some changes in the way law firms think about and measure success. Perhaps more importantly, there are more general counsels who are women and who want to make opportunities for qualified women to take the lead in cases. There are also women's initiatives in some law firms that have made the jump from social events to initiatives focused on business development and leadership. Many of these groups are demanding that women be given opportunities to grow their business and to take on leadership roles. And, then there are the Gen Yers, many of whom come into the workplace with less bias and less expectation of traditional gender roles.

However, this progress is slow, will not make a significant difference unless women own up to the fact they have played a part in creating the current model. How? By the "don't ask and don't tell" syndrome that has plagued women in law firms for years: We don't ask for business and career opportunities, for leadership positions, for chances to strut our stuff; and we don't tell when we are successful. Instead, we wait for the recognition and reward and don't recognize our collective power.

So how do women break the syndrome that holds them back from leadership and power in law firms? First, we have to recognize that power is law firms is defined by leadership opportunities and books of business. And we have to then demand that firms change the traditional ways in which that power is transferred. This starts by mandating unconscious bias training mandatory for partners and associates. That has to be followed by formalizing systems that have traditionally held women back:

  • Instituting a process for identifying and promoting candidates for leadership positions
  • Making firms identify the characteristics of successful partners and leaders
  • Having formal job descriptions for leadership positions
  • Insisting on formal succession planning for long term client relationships
  • Monitoring who goes on client pitches
  • Requiring a systemized and monitored approach to assignments for significant cases and matters
  • cases and matters

Second, women have to take an active role in managing and advancing their careers by:

  • Asking to be included in client pitches
  • Seeking out leadership positions in the firm and on client teams
  • Courting clients, particularly women in leadership positions at clients

Simply put, women need to ask for opportunities and be willing to fail. We have to say to the Wizard, "since you are leaving town in that balloon, how about I take over as Queen of Oz". But, of course, we should keep the ruby red slippers - because there is nothing wrong with a leader who has some style.

By Patrica Gillette
First published, July 2009 in AmLaw Daily