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Getting on the Radar (February 2005)

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Getting on the Radar

Issue # 37
February 2005

"The meritocracy mentality is summed up in the view that if you
excel at your work, you will be recognized and rewarded, with
promotions and other insignia of success - including business.
On an individual level, this preoccupation with merit reflects a
mindset...that might be described as the 'Field of Dreams'
school of marketing: if we build it they will come."

~Deborah Graham [1]

During a recent group coaching call with women lawyers discussing obstacles to marketing, one participant described her difficulty getting on the radar of partners in charge of work assignments at her firm. Several other women on the call echoed her sentiments. These women knew they did excellent work at their firms and were frustrated at the difficulty of getting recognition for their accomplishments. Whenever a great project came into the firm, it was immediately directed to a male lawyer.

As I listened, I recalled a story I'd heard at a networking luncheon of women lawyers. One women, currently serving as General Counsel to a Fortune 1000 company, recalled that a plum assignment had come into the firm where she'd been an associate and she'd immediately gone to the assigning partner to express her interest in the case. The next day she heard that a male colleague had been given the assignment. Upset and confused, she decided to ask her colleague what he'd done to get the assignment. He showed her a document he'd prepared for the partner recording his credentials, relevant experience and training for doing the project. In other words, he'd made a compelling case that he was the best associate for the job.

It had never occurred to her to approach getting an assignment in this way - and the other women at the luncheon agreed that this kind of approach had never occurred to them.

Since that time, the now-General Counsel had pursued every career opportunity by making her best case. Her current status offered clear evidence of her strategy's effectiveness.


There is ample evidence that gender and race influence unconscious assumptions about competence (see, for example, Rhode [2].) The performance of women in law firms receives greater scrutiny than that of men, and women lawyers must work harder than their male counterparts to persuade others of their capabilities. While most male attorneys will risk working on an untried task, assuming they'll figure it out as they go along, women lawyers tend to be over-concerned with the possibility of error. They set higher standards of expertise for themselves before volunteering for unfamiliar tasks. The preoccupation with producing superior work allows many women attorneys to expect the quality of their work to speak for itself. Surely, anyone who has seen their work would choose them for the job.

Unfortunately, as the General Counsel's story illustrates so well, this is usually not the case. Many of the women lawyers I coach over-rely on a "nose to the grindstone" approach to career success - and wind up frustrated and disappointed.

Unconscious assumptions about gender lead us to presume men are competent while women need to prove their ability. Similarly, our implicit beliefs about how women and men "should be" lead us to accept recognition-seeking behaviors from men while viewing the same behavior as aggressive or unseemly in a woman.


When your good work doesn't receive notice and your efforts to bring attention to your accomplishments are met with disapproval, the prospects for success can look pretty bleak.

This bind leads many woman lawyers to leave law firms for workplaces where career success doesn't depend on business development.

Unfortunately, even when generating revenue is not part of your job description, you still need to market yourself. To be successful in any organization, you need to get the assignments you want in order to develop your skills. At some point, you'll probably want to be promoted. You may have leadership aspirations.

There is no getting around the need for self-promotion. If you want to control your own career, be viewed as providing value, earn leverage for negotiating salary and balanced hours schedules, get the work you want and accomplish your most important career goals, you have to find ways to get on the radar of the people in a position to make decisions about your goals.


Many of the women attorneys I coach claim that they simply cannot market themselves or their skills. One of my favorite stories is from a woman I coached several years ago when she was ready to change careers because she was convinced she could not be successful. She hated "chit chat" and was certain that business development required that she take strangers to lunch and work a room at networking events. But one day she realized she didn't have to do that: instead, she could give speeches to prospective clients at their trade association events. This changed her perspective dramatically because she loved public speaking about as much as she hated "chit chatting." She's now not only a senior partner but also serves on the management committee of her firm.

How often have you organized events and persuaded people to volunteer for various tasks? If your child was having difficulty at school, didn't you find a way to get on the teachers' and administrator's radar? How have you persuaded overbooked doctors to take your call when you're sick? Don't people you meet socially ask you about your work? You probably don't demure and refuse to tell them about it.

From my perspective, many women who believe that they cannot market effectively have spent years getting on the radar of others in non-business contexts. In these other situations, they were less concerned about proving their competence. Because they weren't burdened with self-consciousness, they felt free to tell others about their goals and achievements.



Depending upon your specific goals, different people will need information about your competencies and accomplishments. People within your organization who make decisions about work assignments and promotions should be aware of the kind of opportunities you're seeking and why you should receive them. You don't have to be the most skilled person for the job - sometimes you're looking for a chance to develop your skills. Under these circumstances you'll need to build a different kind of case: articulating the contributions you'll be able to make to the organization once you've mastered these skills; explaining how your participation will contribute to a team effort; making clear that you value your experience working with this particular partner and want to further build your working relationship, etc.

In a business development context, you need to specify your target market and identify people in a position to make decisions about purchasing legal services.


Understand the value you have to the person whose attention and recognition you're trying to get. There's no "standard" pitch; it must always be tailored to the person you're addressing.

In order to be effective, you need to understand the needs and concerns of the listener. For example, if it appears that the assigning partner has concerns about a woman's ability to handle litigation with particularly tough opposing counsel, then you'll need to address this. One woman attorney I coached became aware of the fact that the partner for whom she was working was not giving her the work she wanted because he assumed she wasn't equipped to handle its complex financial aspects. Having recognized this, she planned a non-adversarial discussion of his perceptions of her abilities and the evidence that demonstrated her ability to do the work. He agreed to give her a project to allow both of them to assess her qualifications. She did such an excellent job that the client called the partner to sing her praises. This alleviated his concerns, and she continued to receive the kind of work she wanted.

It's easy to get angry when others assume that you aren't competent. We all need to call attention to biased assumptions. However, you won't move your career along with righteous indignation. Instead, validate your perception of unfairness, but also ask yourself, "What will work?" The more you accomplish your goals, the more real power you'll gain and the better the position you'll be in to work for equity.

It often helps to think of everyone whose help you need as you would a client. When it comes to business development, you need to demonstrate credibility and trust. In order to do that, you need to communicate to the client that you thoroughly understand their unique concerns, challenges and goals. You have to demonstrate that these things truly matter to you by going above and beyond what's expected.

This is equally the case with getting on the radar of people inside your organization. People form work alliances with those whom they perceive as sharing their goals. If you want help from others at your firm, you'll need to show them how they can benefit from cooperating with you.

The most crucial aspect of getting on someone's radar is knowing what's most important to that person and demonstrating how recognizing your goals and needs will benefit him or her as well.

In this context, there's another important point to consider: psychological research indicates that women who self-promote often face retaliation. Specifically, focusing attention on their accomplishments often increases other people's perceptions of them as competent, but also leads others to evaluate them as personally unattractive or not likeable. However, there's an important exception: this backlash effect is minimized when the listener has a vested interest in the woman's success. [3] So, if you're worried about negative responses to your self-promotion efforts, make sure you're seeking recognition from someone who will benefit from recognizing your talents and achievements.


Needless to say, defining who needs to know what and determining their motivation for listening requires that you regularly shift your attention away from your work and focus on the interpersonal aspects of your job.

Decide to make getting on the radar a core part of your job description. Even if you're struggling to meet excessive billable hours expectations, you can't afford to do otherwise. Consider how you'll feel if your career becomes stalled in spite of your having billed all of those hours.

If you're working for someone whose billable hours expectations are so high that it's not realistically possible to do the job and market yourself, consider taking your considerable talent, experience and motivation to an employer who really wants to make your success viable. Don't stay in a job where success is impossible due to absurdly unrealistic expectations. Remember, your career is always more important than any particular job.


If you're going to make your abilities visible, you'll need to put a lot of energy into developing your expertise. It's much easier to sustain this kind of effort when you're doing work that genuinely interests you and which you believe is important.

Trust is best demonstrated when you genuinely care. It's difficult to persuade others to take a chance on you if you're not really concerned about their interests as well. And why do something that doesn't genuinely interest you or work for someone whose goals are not congruent with your own? Life is too short for the unhappiness that such a situation guarantees.

Perhaps more importantly, genuine enthusiasm about your work attracts people to you. The more enthusiastic you are about what you can offer, the more trust you inspire. And when you're leading with your interest and enthusiasm, you're less likely to feel the discomfort that often accompanies efforts to "sell."


Many women I coach complain that they've tried to get on the radar of decision-makers but all of their efforts have been ignored. I suggest that they think of ways to challenge unresponsiveness that are not adversarial. Assuming you're genuinely trying to work toward win-win solutions, try asking the assigning partner why you did not receive an assignment. Present it as a question that comes out of legitimate confusion - that you'd like to better understand what s/he is looking for and what you need to do in order to be viewed as the "go to" lawyer for this kind of work.

Of course there will be times when there's nothing that you can do to change the situation. That's when it's time to look elsewhere.

But asking directly allows unspoken assumptions to surface. It also makes clear that you're not one to sit by silently and watch your career erode - that you'll hold others accountable in appropriate ways.


One of the reasons it's so important for women lawyers to have mentors is to help them get on the radar. Your mentor can promote you because of the credibility and power s/he has already established, and can advise you about internal political obstacles about which you're not informed so that you can navigate around them.

Talk to the people who are getting the work you want and ask them how they're getting it. In my experience, people often assume it simply boils down to a personality difference or gender bias. But, like the General Counsel, you may discover that the other person has a strategy that may work as well for you as it has for him or her.

Find a coach for yourself. A career management coach can give you honest feedback and can spot things you may be unaware of that are undermining your effectiveness. For example, I recently asked a coaching client whether she'd ever explicitly told a prospect she'd like to provide his or her legal services. She confessed that she'd never actually asked anyone for business. Although she suspected this might be a problem, it wasn't until our discussion highlighted the effects of this omission that she began to consider how she could make this task easier for herself. We developed a plan that allowed her to ask her most loyal client - someone with whom she had a longstanding relationship of mutual caring and respect - whether he knew of anyone else who might benefit from her services.

To her surprise and pleasure, he immediately got on the phone and scheduled luncheons for himself, my coaching client, and several people he thought might be excellent prospects for her.

Perhaps you have untapped resources like this - people who'd love to refer to you and sing your praises - if only they knew you wanted the work?


Consider identifying one person on whose radar you'd like to be.

  • Imagine you are that person. Then ask yourself: how could I benefit by knowing about this attorney's (your) skills, knowledge, talents and strengths?
  • What exactly do you want this person to know about you?
  • In what three ways could you get your message across?
  • How will you follow up in order to demonstrate that you were a good choice and that you appreciate being given the opportunity?

Do an experiment - try it once.

And, if you can take an extra minute, please write and let me know what happened. If you were successful, I'd love to celebrate with you. And if you run into obstacles, I'd love to know what didn't work. This will help me become a better coach and advisor to others.


  1. Graham, Deborah (1997). "Getting Down to Business: Marketing and Women Lawyers." Little Falls, NJ: Glasser Legal Works. Pp. 43-44.
  2. Rhode, Deborah L. (2001) "The Unfinished Agenda: Women and the Legal Profession." American Bar Association Commission on Women in the Profession. Available at
  3. Rudman, Laurie A. (1998). 'Self promotion as a risk factor for women: The costs and benefits of counterstereotypical impression management.' "Journal of Personality and Social Psychology",74,(3),629-645.

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