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The Law of Unintended Consequences

The Law of Unintended Consequences

This article was originally featured on Forbes.

One step forward, two steps back, or so it seems. By that I mean, no sooner do female professionals burst through the glass ceilings within their respective firms, our attention is refocused on professions still mired in the Dark Ages of gender equality.

First, credit must be given where credit is due. Kudos to corporations like Yahoo!, General Motors, PepsiCo, and Hewlett-Packard who’ve have helped female executives, present and future, take giant leaps forward by making gender a non-starter and selecting their chief executives on the basis of talent alone.

The financial industry has made some progress in this regards, but it’s really still a basement dweller when it comes C-level women. Few occupations, however, are as far behind the gender equality curve as the legal profession. The numbers tell a dismal story. Consider: Approximately 47.2% of currently-enrolled law students are women and 31.1% of practicing lawyers are female. Yet, just 16% of law firm partners are female, and 11% of the largest law firms don’t have a single woman on their governing boards. And so the stats go on; none are particularly encouraging.

[Related: The Gender Gap That's Really Hurting Us (and It's Not the One You Think)]

Reasons for the alarming paucity of women in senior legal positions are well documented. For now, I’ll leave that debate to others and offer up some suggestions as to how women in the legal profession can avoid being left behind on the partnership track.

Silent Plight 
Women may be the fairer sex, but it’s not axiomatic they should be the silent majority. Nor does it imply they should suppress their opinions, no matter how contrarian. Whether it’s taking depositions, counseling clients, or participating in department meetings, vocalize your point of view and lobby aggressively for your positions. A robust vocal presence can do wonders for making people sit up and take notice of the legal intelligentsia behind the female professional. Remember, don’t just lean in, speak up.

Even professionals on the fast track to partnership or other senior roles within their firms have to conduct a certain amount of self-promotion to ensure they identify, then rise to the attention of advocates within their organization. Every employee, no matter their vocation, can benefit from the backing of at least one sponsor who’ll help ease the way up the corporate food chain. Once you’ve identified this person, treat yourself like a brand and subtly market yourself and your accomplishments to them. Uncomfortable as it may be for the many professionals who prefer to have their work speak for itself, a little help from on-high can go a long way.

[Related: 5 Ways Top Companies Are Closing The Gender Gap]

Get Comfortable with being Uncomfortable

We all know individuals who just appear to skate through their personal and professional lives with seemingly everything going their way. Unfortunately, they’re in the far distant minority; most of us have to push ourselves to achieve success. Doing so requires what most people avoid – breaking through the boundaries of our comfort zones. The downside of breaking through the comfort zone is that life will get a little more stressful for a while. The upside: you may well find yourself in a place that helps you achieve new professional heights. “No pain, no gain” also has meaning outside of the gym.

Balancing Acts Aren’t Just for Circus Performers

One of the many reasons postulated for women not making it further in the legal world is the perception they can’t give work their full attention because they also have families to care for. It’s Neanderthal reasoning for sure, but likely a major contributor to the “being left behind” issue. No question, as a full-time working mother looking to build a career, not just have a job, the odds can be stacked against you; working dads mostly have it way easier. Without a doubt, you can have your cake and eat it too. What it requires is that you learn to balance home and work life so that they operate as much as possible on parallel paths. If you can keep them from intersecting, the odds go way up you’ll be judged by your superiors not as a working mother who also happens to be a lawyer, but as a legal professional. Period.

Have more questions? Follow up with the expert herself.


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