She Can Do Anything
Congratulations! You’ve joined the small, elite force of women law firm partners. Your perseverance, fortitude, and political savvy helped you wind your way through the law firm equivalents of Scylla and Charybdis. You’ve stayed afloat in the swirl of endless, exhausting, deadline-driven hours and created a reputation for yourself as nonfungible despite how easily women disappear into anonymity in the absence of powerful advocates and high-visibility assignments.
Most law firms continue with business as usual after partner elections. This is unfortunate because it’s not just your job description that’s changed, it’s also your identity. This is the kind of transition that calls for a formal rite of passage, one that would remove you from the daily routine, teach you the skills required for your new status, and reintegrate your new partner self.
It’s not uncommon for a new partner’s euphoria to quickly give way to feelings of dislocation and uncertainty. You know what’s expected of an associate; you’ve learned to play a great supporting role. But now you’re a business owner, so you’ll need to think and act differently. The most obvious change is your responsibility for bringing in new business—lots of it. Your relationships also have to change. How do you interact with partners as colleagues when you used to work for them? Has anyone taught you how to lead and manage lawyers who used to be your peers?
Recently, I took Karen (names have been changed to protect identities), a lawyer at a large D.C. firm, to lunch to commemorate her recent election to partnership. As an executive coach for women lawyers, I enjoy celebrating the advancement of a woman attorney. Karen told me that her walk to the restaurant was the first chance she’d had to reflect on what it meant to become an equity partner. “The awareness of the responsibility really hit me,” she confided. “I have all of these people I’m responsible for. It’s not that I wasn’t before, but now it really is all up to me to keep them busy, support them financially, and bring them along in their careers. It’s pretty daunting.”
When the reality hits, you’re likely to feel more like Sisyphus than the triumphant hero. After all that effort and sacrifice, here you are again at the bottom of the hill with that huge boulder in front of you. You’ve got miles of uncharted territory to cross and a whole new career phase filled with opportunities and risks.
It’s important to recognize that the very strengths that madeyou successful as an associate could derail you as a partner. Although it’s scary to relinquish well-rehearsed roles your failure to do so can undermine your career.
After her promotion to partnership, Christine continued to support the practice of the partner with whom she’d worked as an associate. Certainly some client matters came directly to her, and she managed these well, but she’d assumed that assignments from the senior partner were her first priority.
In my experience, many women like Christine lose career momentum—and considerable compensation—when they continue to play a supporting role, which is the position women are socialized to occupy. For their part, men have been socialized to rely on women, the conundrum being that the better job women do, the more men are rewarded for this behavior.
There are pragmatic considerations, as well. When you get an assignment from a senior male partner, you probably don’t feel very comfortable saying, “No, I’m on my way to find my own clients.” You’ve still got billable-hours requirements to meet, and doing the work that’s handed to you is the quickest route over that hurdle. Even in firms where business development is a requirement for partnership, women continue to feel pulled into supporting roles.
Women’s discomfort with business development—or at least with what they believe it takes to develop business—also pushes them back into these roles. Since people tend to be most comfortable with those who are similar to them, odds are that senior men are schmoozing with your male counterparts in their offices or on the golf course, bringing them into relationships with clients they’re likely to inherit when the senior partner retires.
In fact, the most recent data indicate that exclusion from informal networks and reduced opportunities for advancement (such as business development) are two of the top four reasons why women leave large firms. Excluded from these informal networks, many women become partners with fewer client relationships and less experience gaining access to decision-makers. As a result, many have an inaccurate picture of what it takes to make rain and don’t see themselves as capable of doing it. Others are uncertain about where to start.
To complicate matters further, many women enter partnership with young children; others postpone starting a family until reaching this milestone. There don’t seem to be enough hours in the day for a new woman partner trying to meet billable requirements, manage large matters, fulfill administrative responsibilities, respond to client crises, and take care of her family. In fact, one of the most frequent challenges I hear from the women attorneys I coach is, “This is what my day looks like. Exactly where in there do you see time for client development?”
These challenges—time, family, exclusion from networks, expectations from senior partners—are all very real. On the other hand, developing your own book of business is your ticket to independence and power. The first step toward taking control of your career future, developing and running your own business, ensuring that you are compensated equitably, and deriving genuine satisfaction from your work is accurate self-awareness. This is the building block for everything else. Without it, the path ahead is likely to be filled with more threats than opportunities.
The transition to partnership is the ideal time to take a step back in order to redefine your goals, decide where you want to be, assess where you are now, and determine how you’ll get from here to there.
I know you don’t think you have the time, but it’s essential that you carve out occasions for doing this. Defining your own goals protects you from having them defined for you by others; taking responsibility for your future and being proactive shields you from being acted upon. Failing to reflect before leaping into action can easily lead to actions tha lack the purpose and direction needed for accomplishing your most valued goals.
I receive countless calls from women partners who express regret about having pursued a practice area out of expedience rather than passion. I’ve coached many unhappy women partners in litigation practices who dread each deposition. They built their practices to conform to the expectations of their firms, rather than to their own interests and strengths. If you want partnership to really be a brass ring, use it as an opportunity to do work you enjoy.
Put your goals in writing. Crises deflect attention from goals. If you’ve written yours down and kept them in a place you frequent, you’re less likely to function on automatic pilot for long periods of time, only to awaken to a reality Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, describes: You’ve climbed the ladder of succes only to realize it’s leaning against the wrong wall.
As a leader, you need to have a clear picture of your guiding values and a vision for your practice. How else will you build your team and motivate your people to work toward your goals? Since you can’t do everything, success will depend upon you making trade-offs. You can’t do this without deciding what really matters most to you.
It’s equally essential to know your strengths and limitations. Building upon your strengths is the path of least resistance, and research indicates that it’s the best way to become focused, engaged, happy, and successful. I once coached a woman attorney who spent most of her day in an office drafting contracts. Her strengths lay in the areas of social intelligence, humor, and creating harmony.
No wonder she was miserable. She should have been out of the office using her social skills to network, give talks, and make rain.
Your weaknesses are not irrelevant; they’re important for developing your team. I recently coached a new large-firm partner who was extremely creative but found details mind-numbing. We identified a senior associate in her group who was very detail-oriented. When they divided their work in accordance with their strengths, each was contented and productive.
Becoming partner is an identity shift; you need to craft your own partner persona. You might consider borrowing specific aspects from the people you’ve admired along the way. Your goal is to develop a leadership style that fits you as well as the characteristics of your workplace.
Despite the rhetoric of individuality in law firms, the push for homogeneity is strong. But as a new woman partner, you represent something different from what’s dominant in your organization. Resist becoming a copy of everyone else. When you know yourself—what you’re made of, what you stand for, what makes you feel engaged and alive, what you value, what you’re trying to build, and what your strengths are—then you’re in a position to be authentic. A Hasidic story may best explain this. Rabbi Zusya said, “In the world to come, I shall not be asked, ‘Why were you not Moses?’ I shall be asked, ‘Why were you not Zusya?’ ”
Authenticity feels better—after all, it takes far more energy to try to be someone other than who you are—it’s an essential leadership quality, and it’s good for business.
When you can approach clients with genuine interest in their concerns and goals, you’re far more likely to become a successful rainmaker. Karen, the partner I mentioned earlier, built her practice by spending time with women corporate counsel she really liked. Most of the time she wasn’t deliberately trying to get business. She simply reached out to women she met through bar activities and industry events.
As their relationships deepened, they began to trust her with the challenges they faced at work. Because Karen was particularly astute politically, she offered them whatever guidance they needed to negotiate difficult situations with their internal clients. Over time, if she happened to mention that she needed to build her practice, they were happy to refer her to friends and colleagues both within and outside of their own organizations. Karen didn’t develop business by “selling”—she did it by genuinely caring and by thoroughly understanding her clients’ needs.
Accurate self-awareness can be difficult to maintain once you’ve attained a leadership position. It’s lonely at the top. There are too few of you, and too many people are afraid to tell you the truth. Although it’s not easy to welcome criticism, you need to know how others experience you. This is why it’s essential to establish relationships with people who will give you the feedback you need. You must have someone with whom you can share your concerns, your goals, your hopes, and your mistakes. Consider mentors, coaches, or family members. Your ability to bounce back from failure, to maintain hope and optimism, and to learn from adversity depends upon these relationships.
Building authentic connections is how you gain access to decision-makers, become a trusted adviser, learn what your clients value, gain influence internally, motivate your team, grow professionally, and restore yourself. Never let yourself get too busy to develop and maintain these connections. This will build your business and empower and nurture you in return. In fact, it’s the only way to breathe rarefied air.