Dear LiL: As a woman in the practice of law and a strong advocate for others, it is surprising how ineffective I am at fighting for myself. I know I bring value to the table and I work hard enough, why am I being overlooked when my colleagues are being recognized at a quicker pace and how can I make myself seen? Signed ~ Climbing the Ladder
Guest Blogger, Rose Shawlee, discusses the importance of finding a champion when feeling overlooked in your career, and how to better advocate for yourself.
Dear Climbing the Ladder:
It is devastating to our industry when lawyers view their career trajectory as a fight. We are failing our lawyers and industry when this occurs. The most effective vehicle, in my experience, to remove the fight from workplace advancement is to find a champion.
A champion is often different than a mentor. A champion is someone within your firm, typically a partner, who not only sees your current value and future potential, but who is:
– willing to share insights with you about navigating your particular firm,
– willing to be your advocate within the power structure of that firm, and
– willing to give you honest feedback about where the firm perceives you to be falling short on the criteria for advancement.
All firms are different, and the level of disclosure to associates about both the formalized decision-making structure and the actual decision-making practices (and let’s not kid ourselves, they’re not always the same) varies widely. In some circumstances, communications with your champion can reveal that you simply did not know what the criteria were and therefore, no matter how hard you worked, it wasn’t the ‘right’ work, and, as you note, the work therefore wasn’t ‘seen’. It is a staggeringly common failing within our industry that the benchmarks for advancement are opaque. It is completely fair to ask what these criteria are.
This does not mean that your champion will share everything with you. Those who are the most effective champions are those where there is mutual respect between you, and also a respect by that champion for the firm and the etiquettes surrounding the obligations of partnership. This means that until you are at the partnership table, there are likely limits on what will be shared. Keeping this in mind is important – if your champion doesn’t respect the firm, there are bigger issues.
Assuming the criteria for promotion are known and you feel you are meeting them, understanding why the firm doesn’t view you as suitable to advance is key.
Sometimes the information you receive will not be about why you may be unsuitable, so much as what made someone else stand out, which gives you tools to follow suit and be seen. For example, a person advanced because clients wrote in to praise their work, which put them on the radar of decision makers more so than others.
More complicated is where the information you receive makes it clear that advancements are tied to ‘fit’ issues as opposed to technical skill and work. ‘Fit’ is often riddled with silent gender factors, none of which will be news to you. A consistently devious factor remains that women are still disproportionately perceived as contributing less than their male counterparts to the culture and non-billable aspect of a firm due to family commitments. This is further aggravated by the fact women continue to be less likely to vocalize their contributions. Conversely, women in law who don’t have families are often tacitly presumed to be available to be unrecognized coverage for work so that those with families are not burdened, and those women who are too vocal about contributions are equally seen as missing the mark for ‘fit’. This remains an unacceptably slippery slope for female lawyers.
Having a champion gives you a platform to express the value you bring to the firm and have your contributions seen. Ideally, it will also allow you to direct your message about your intention to advance and the reasons for your suitability to the appropriate people in an effective way. Equally importantly, where the information you are receiving demonstrates manifest bias (gender or otherwise), hopefully it gives you a receptive audience to explain that these practices are not neutral, need to be reexamined, and what would equitable.
In any scenario, the goal is to have meaningful, frank, and respectful communications that make your advancement possible on equal footing with your colleagues. If, when you look around your firm, you:
– cannot picture anybody you respect enough to cultivate as your champion, or
– you have already done this and didn’t like what you learned about the culture of the firm or its practices,
consider whether this is the right environment for you.
With enough patience and effort, most environments can be changed. If communications with your champion confirm a bias and a willingness to change, you can consider whether you want to be part of this change. If your firm has demonstrated to you that their practices are biased and they are not receptive to change, it is reasonable for you to acknowledge the value of your skill and take it to a setting grounded in meritocracy.
About the Author
Rose Shawlee is Associate Counsel with Harper Grey LLP bringing more than 13 years’ experience to her practice which is primarily focused on assisting families and businesses with their planning, succession, estate, and business needs. She strives to make life’s inevitabilities, death and taxes, less daunting a topic for clients while being alert to the complications these raise from a legal, family, tax, probate fee, and cost perspective. Rose is an active member of the community and a sought after speaker. She is committed to supporting resources for women and their growth and independence.