Strategies That Can Help Female Attorneys Succeed

The legal landscape is always evolving. In the not too distant past, the idea that a woman could or should make it rain or run her own firm was considered absurd. It was a “man’s world,” and women were merely allowed to be in it. Well, today it’s a very different story.

We now have women managing sizeable firms, leading general counsel roles and bringing in more business than many men. So, what’s changed, and how do women capitalize on this opportunity?

The first step is to look at the positive shifts in the legal landscape. In data found in a 2019 American Bar Association study and 2018 National Association of Women Lawyers report, we see some interesting trends.

  •  More women are entering the profession of law than ever before; 50% of law school students are women and that percentage is rising.
  • More women are in corporate “power roles” than ever before.
  • Law firms are more interested in diversity and balance than in years past.
  • Firms are more family friendly; 88% allow attorneys to work from home after family leave.

That being said, there’s still a significant power gap between men and women in the private sector:

  • On average, women make 20% less than men.
  • The majority of women are not in a leadership or equity roles at their firm (only 20%).
  • 93% of top earners are men.
  • Women face the work-family balance much more than men.

While women are trending in the right direction, there’s tremendous opportunity for growth here. Developing your legal skills, personal brand and book of business are critical to becoming a powerhouse in the legal industry.

In my experience coaching dozens of women lawyers, the keys to  success fall into three primary areas: developing a solid plan for growth and sustainability; getting out of your comfort zone; and becoming a master of your time.

To make the transformation from worker bee to business development assassin and firm leader, here are three tips that have proven effective with the women I’ve helped grow their law practices.

Develop a plan that can’t fail.

Most attorneys are “winging it” and hoping that business comes from their efforts. The key is to develop a plan that cuts to the bone. As you know, wasting time is the same as wasting money. Every hour spent doing the wrong things, with the wrong people, the wrong way, will most certainly keep you from accomplishing your business goals.

A good step before writing a plan is to begin taking stock of your clients, referral sources and contacts. Always focus on the low-hanging fruit first.

Here’s my ranking of business opportunities, from easiest to hardest:

  • Getting more business from your existing clients.
  • Cross-marketing your clients with additional services.
  • Obtaining quality introductions from your existing clients.
  • Leveraging your strongest relationships for direct business opportunities or quality  introductions.
  • Developing strategic partnerships with good referral sources.
  • Attending conferences where prospective clients and referral sources are.
  • Attend or join local networking groups and associations to meet new referral sources or to develop new business.

Based on your business development experience and strength of your network, you may be able to work the top of the list. Others may have to begin from the bottom. Whatever the case, create a list of people to contact and set aside time every week to proactively reach out to meet with them.

Get out of your comfort zone.

A few years ago, I had a female client who was struggling with a big problem. She was attending conferences and meeting with the highest-level general counsel in the country (good), but she was in the“friend” zone and didn’t feel comfortable bringing up the topic of doing business (bad). Additionally, this had been going on for years (really bad).

From a “time is money” and a lost opportunity cost perspective, this was devastating to her. Developing a plan to reconnect with key clients and contacts is great, but without the right attitude and approach to business development, it might all be for naught.

For me, the easiest way to get my head wrapped around this seemingly difficult issue is to consider that I’m the best at what I do. I derive this confidence based on my past successes and results with my clients. My success, therefore, drives me to want to help more attorneys to succeed.

For example, I know that when I work with an intelligent, motivated and coachable attorney, no one can get an attorney better results.

Can you say that about your work as an attorney? If you know you’re great at what you do, it’s easier for you to buy into the idea that your general counsel friends, neighborhood CEO or past law firm partner who went in-house would truly benefit from working with you. If this is not the case, keep working on your lawyering skills.

Once you have the belief in yourself, it’s time to craft some language to make the “ask” without ego or pandering seem like second nature. For many female attorneys stuck in the friend zone, you should try saying, “You know Becky, I love meeting with you at these conferences and truly appreciate our friendship. I am curious as to why we’ve never discussed working together. Have you ever considered this?”

Or, “You know Becky, I love meeting with you at these conferences and truly appreciate our friendship. While I would never want to jeopardize our relationship, I know I would be of great value to you and your company. Would you be open to discussing a way for us to work together?”

OK, so what’s the worst that could happen? If your friend has great reason why you can’t work together, well, now you know, and you can move on. If your friend loves the idea, you will be kicking yourself for not bringing this up years ago.

One of the best things I’ve learned in business development is that knowing is always better than not knowing.

Sounds simple, but most business developers live in hope that things will happen. To me, hoping is like dreaming. It rarely leads to clarity, assurance or real results.

Become the master of your time.

Is balance really achievable for successful women in law? Can you develop your book, gain a leadership role at your firm and take care of your family without going nuts?

In my experience, this is only achievable to the lucky or the women who master time management. Similar to business development, time management is a learned skill. In fact, I was incredibly disorganized when I first started my business more than 15 years ago. My desk was a disaster, I was always pushing important tasks off and I could never seem to get anything done on time.

After my first year, I realized that this wasn’t sustainable and decided to begin studying the art of time management. After six months I had cleaned up my clutter, eliminated time-wasting activities and crafted my week for efficiency. Here are three things I did that made all the difference.

For me, step one was cleaning up all of my messes. I went through my two offices and my emails to throw out, file or take action on everything in front of me. This purging took more than eight hours, but it felt like a thousand pounds had lifted off of my shoulders.

Without doing this first, it would have been very challenging to continue my progress.

Once the purging was done, I looked at my workday in 15-minute increments to better understand what I did all day and what I needed to change or remove from my life. This exercise will blow your mind. We are distracted most of the day doing unproductive and menial tasks. Ask yourself:

  • What should I be doing or not doing?
  • Is this mission critical or something I need to put off?
  • Am I doing this efficiently?
  • Is this task below my pay scale?
  • Is there someone else that can do this?
  • Can this be done early, late or over the weekend?

The key here is to catalog your entire day to identify wasted time, poorly executed efforts and tasks that can be delegated. The result should be more hours opened for business development activities and family time.

Many of the women that I’ve worked with start out with the same concerns you might have about balancing a heavy workload, personal health and the needs of the family. In the end, their optimism, motivation to succeed, combined with excellent planning and execution won the day.

The good news for women in law is that things are getting better every year. While I’m not suggesting that any of this is easy, nothing worth doing usually is.

This article also appeared in the Sept. 19th edition of The Chicago Daily Law Bulletin.