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Overcoming My Own Bias of Women’s Groups at Law Firms (Perspective)

Sept. 13, 2016, 6:44 PM

Editor’s Note: The author is an executive committee member at a large law firm.

As I enter my 23rd year in private practice, I reflect on how my career path has developed and changed. I recall graduating from law school having a mix of emotions that included tremendous pride in achieving a childhood dream to become a lawyer and a healthy sense of fear about how I was going to tackle the profession’s many challenges.

In the early years, those challenges were mainly focused on learning how to become a “real” lawyer, not the analytical abstract thinker who was trained at law school. As my skills as a technical lawyer developed, I entered the race of how to become a distinguished and highly sought after mid-level associate. During those years, I functioned with the deep-rooted belief that as long as I worked hard and made sacrifices, I would earn a partnership. As I entered the final stretch of my partnership run, I crossed my fingers that I had chosen the right practice area and had the right people in my corner to get me across the line.

All along this continuum, I intentionally avoided getting involved with “women’s groups” as a general category. I was convinced those groups were comprised of women who wanted “special treatment” or women who just wanted to complain. I used to think, “I don’t want special treatment, I want the same treatment, and I definitely don’t have time to complain.”

Of course, like so many who have biases, I formed my beliefs about “women’s groups” not based on facts or active involvement. Instead, I created a narrative in my mind based on one failed networking event and then decided that all of those groups must be the same. I went along my career path and was promoted to partner while simultaneously starting a family. After making partner, the harsh reality set in that partnership was not the final crowning achievement. Rather, it was just the beginning of the next stage of my career where the bars seemed to get higher and the pressures on maintaining a successful practice and a happy life outside of the office were in constant tension.

I felt more and more isolated and did not know if I was going to be able to stay in private practice and maintain any semblance of a life. Then, about 10 years ago, a friend and mentor, who happened to be a woman, asked me to come to an organizational meeting for a women’s bar association that was in the process of revitalizing. Because I was at my wits end, I decided to give it a shot and am glad I did.

I met a collection of amazing women who were facing many of the same challenges and they weren’t looking for special treatment. They didn’t complain. Instead, they shared tips about how they relieved stress and how they developed better time management skills. They talked about the importance of women helping other women by referring work, mentoring less senior women, and advocating for qualified women to serve in the judiciary and other appointed positions. They developed strategies for women to get comfortable with the art of self-promotion and effective networking. In other words, the organization offered a supportive community focused on making a positive difference for women lawyers who were striving, and sometimes struggling, to meet their personal and professional goals.

So, I attended more meetings and made more new friends. Then, an even more amazing thing happened — I suddenly found a wide variety of leadership and personal development opportunities being presented by my involvement with the group. I learned how to: organize events, develop and lead committees, raise funds, serve as a director on a non-profit board, and become a stronger public speaker and advocate. All of this translated into better performance in my law practice, the strengthening of my leadership skills, and a greater sense of overall confidence and accomplishment in my career.

However, most important of all, I was able to shatter my earlier formed bias against women’s groups and I became a persistent advocate for active involvement in women affinity organizations. The benefits that come from women helping women are too great to be lost to uninformed bias.

I have since taken what I learned from the bar association and applied it within my firm, founding a Women’s Initiative that has many active members and is grounded on the principle that we all benefit from paying it forward and supporting each other. Now, I largely define success in my career by the number of women that I help by making a referral, providing career advice, serving as a sounding board, serving as a mentor, or just suggesting lunch when a friend seems stressed.

My most recent at effort at paying it forward was taking the time to write this article. It will be gratifying to learn whether my experience has resonated with a reader and helped to shatter a bias that has prevented her from enjoying the support that comes from active engagement with other women, which is a critical component for achieving success in this profession.

Lynda Bennett is a partner with Lowenstein Sandler, LLP. Lynda is the chair of Lowenstein’s Insurance Recovery Practice and a member of the firm’s Executive Board. Lynda also serves on the firm’s Compensation Committee. Lynda is a past president of the New Jersey Women Lawyers Association and remains on the Board of Directors for that organization. She welcomes comments to this article and can be reached at lbennett@lowenstein.com.