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5 Women on How to Climb the Big Law Ladder

Aug. 25, 2016, 2:33 PM

It’s no secret that it’s hard for the women striving for the highest ranks of Big Law. While women represent just under 50 percent of law school graduates, they only make up 24 percent of Fortune 500 general counsel and 18 percent of equity partners in general practice, according to a May 2016 American Bar Association report .

While there are many theories as to why this gender gap persists at the top, most women working in the profession agree that structural inequities and unconscious biases play a large role. As one employment lawyer recently explained to Big Law Business recently, being a woman in Big Law is an endurance contest: “you have to survive a thousand paper cuts.”

So what’s the best way to manage these daily challenges? Big Law Business spoke with five women who’ve made it to the top of their firms to find out their secrets to climbing the ladder without burning out:

“Humor works”

Jenny Ecklund , a healthcare litigator in the Dallas office of Thompson & Knight, gets by with her sense of humor.

“If I hear a comment that comes off as sexist, I’ll flip it on its head and serve it back that way, so the person who stated it hears how it sounds,” she said.

For example, if a colleague comments on how well a woman in the office is doing her job despite having two young children at home, Ecklund will light-heartedly make a similar comment about a man.

“Humor works for me because it helps me to be more objective about it instead of being mired in my frustrations,” Ecklund explained.

Communicate Strategically

Paula Hinton , a partner at Winston & Strawn, has been practicing in Big Law for 35 years. She said she wishes she knew 20 years ago that a few simple communication tricks could have helped her get her voice heard more in meetings. Many women in the workplace complain that men will listen to their ideas only to later present them as their own. The best way to deal with that, Hinton said, is to politely stake a claim to your idea every time it’s repeated.

“If they then repeat what you said as if it was their own, I repeat my own idea again, whether they adopt it or not,” she said. “For example: ‘As I mentioned 15 minutes ago, the best argument is this.’”

Play off of misguided expectations

Before she became President and COO of Baker Donelson, Jennifer Keller was the chair of the firm’s labor and employment division. In her 20 years of practicing law, she’s put up with a lot, including getting mistaken for a court reporter.

As a young litigator, Keller learned to take advantage of others’ low expectations for her work. In some of her cases, she squared off against opposing counsel who had never litigated against a woman before and very clearly expected her to fail.

“One of the older litigators in our firm, she said, ‘Use your uniqueness as an advantage with your opposing counsel. You can let them go along just thinking and believing that you in some way are inadequate, and then you strike.’”

Pick your firm wisely

Bradley partner Margaret Cupples has been in Big Law for over 20 years. Over that time, she’s learned that a supportive firm environment can make or break a young woman’s path to the top.

“There are a lot of challenges that women have that aren’t going away soon, and you really need to look for an environment where the firm is supportive of flexible schedules or different career paths,” she said.

She says she encourages young associates and law students to steer clear of firms that don’t want to talk about their flex-time and leave policies. She also advises them to check if the firm is really walking the walk.

“Don’t just look at women who are doing it, but other people at the firm who have an unconventional schedule or are working from home,” she said. “If the men are doing it, it’s a pretty good signal that the women are doing it too, and that it’s accepted”

Pick a mentor, any mentor

Many women are encouraged to find more experienced women in their law firms to mentor them, and those relationships can certainly be beneficial. But Lisa Barclay , a partner in Boies, Schiller & Flexner’s Washington, D.C. office, said that some of the best advice she’s received in her career came from a man who was a senior partner when she was fresh out of law school.

“He and I were going in to meet with a group of clients,” she said. “I was nervous because I felt that I was never going to know everything he did, and I was never going to be able give advice the way that he would give it. He said, ‘There’s no one way to practice law. You’re not going into this meeting to be me. You can find your own voice and develop your own style and that has its own value.’”

“I do think that having a mentor is important,” Barclay added. “Mentors come in many shapes and sizes. I wouldn’t tell a young woman that her mentor has to be a woman.”

Stephanie Russell-Kraft is a freelance reporter focused on the intersections of religion, culture, gender and the law. She previously covered securities litigation and regulation for Law360. Follow her on Twitter @srussellkraft.

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