Women Navigating Challenges to Lead in the Law: Advice from 10 lawyers who have talked it and walked it

Tuesday, August 15, 2017 - 15:30

It is often said that if you are not uncomfortable, you are not growing. Reasonable minds may differ on the nuances; however, what is certain is that along the road of a career aimed at becoming a leader in the practice of law, many challenges will present themselves. Over the past year, I invested significant time and energy considering the power of navigating those challenges. In addition to gathering data about myself, particularly as I transitioned from an in-house leadership role to a partner at a law firm, I also sought input from others who had ascended along this path. I spoke with leaders working at in-house departments and at law firms, as well as executive coaches and talent management experts. I sought their advice and strategies for women navigating the myriad challenges that come as they try to find their authentic paths.

The big lesson I learned from these women was this: Getting out of your comfort zone drives transformative growth. Other lessons? Seek out the right support and ruthlessly prioritize. I include some of the questions we explored in bold text below.

 

The path to leadership is messy and filled with challenges, regardless of your profession. Is the practice of law good at recognizing that reality?

The consensus was that although the practice of law is getting better, we still have progress to make. Rebecca Weinstein Bacon, a partner at Bartlit Beck Herman Palenchar & Scott, notes that although the practice of law has progressed in fostering a focus on leadership, it is still behind most of the business world. Weinstein Bacon indicates that it is time for the practice to be more explicit that leaders are not just born, they also grow along the course of a career, including as a result of managing challenges. It will also be critical for the practice to support lawyers with the right resources, with a matching cultural shift that recognizes the path to leadership is not linear.

 

How can women who aspire to lead acknowledge the challenges they face and seek out support?

The consistent answer from all of the leaders I interviewed? Find the right mentors and support system for advice. Compiling a personal “board of directors” who offered diverse perspectives and acted as a sounding board was an imperative for all the leaders I consulted. 

Robin Smith, vice president and general counsel, Americas at LEGO Systems, Inc., advises that women approaching challenges should seek out other inspirational female leaders, leveraging them to help chart their own paths. She says those mentors and trusted advisors can help you avoid derailers and common traps. In addition, you can use those relationships to learn how others navigated their own challenges.

Joan Ackerstein, principal at Joan Ackerstein Consulting, LLC and former partner and national chair of litigation at Jackson Lewis P.C., notes it is just as important to reach out and offer support if you see someone facing a challenge. There is nothing more powerful than being patient and offering those navigating complexity the tools they need. The recipients of that support will come back stronger and indebted to you, Ackerstein says.

 

How should women approach challenges that arise along a career?

Ackerstein says it is critical to look at every challenge as an opportunity. Throughout her career, when she approached a difficult case or other challenge, she looked at it as an opportunity to perform at her best. “Where in this lousy event is my opportunity?” was Ackerstein’s refrain.

Nancy Mellard, general counsel at CBIZ Employee Services Division, adds that although there is a lot of discourse about the importance of saying “no” as you move along your career, there are as many times women should be strategic in saying “yes,” particularly when approaching challenges. By tackling those challenges, women can build a sense of power and confidence that is so critical to becoming a leader.

Finally, Hannah Kiernan, executive coach at Kiernan Consulting Group, LLC and a former practicing lawyer, says that women must relinquish the desire for perfection when managing a challenge. “You cannot expect perfection in a challenge,” Kiernan explains. What you can do is expect for it to go well, so long as you are rising to the challenge. Strive for excellence, not perfection, and understand that a challenge does not have to be perfectly navigated for you to achieve success and grow. Even more importantly, if it is a winding and imperfect process, you are likely to grow more.

 

What is the starting point for developing a strategy for navigating those challenges?

Don’t miss out on the simple fact that you need to recognize the challenge for what it is, says Mary Ellen Callahan, partner and chair of the privacy and information governance practice at Jenner & Block. She advises not to try to hide from it, or diminish it. Acknowledge it as a challenging situation and then seek out solutions based on its magnitude. 

Another key strategy? Ruthless prioritization, says Janice Block, chief legal officer and chief administrative officer at Kaplan, Inc. Working through career challenges is much like working through a complex legal issue. You start with the result you are seeking and work backwards on the steps and resources you will need along the way. Figuring out the order in which you need to tackle things, while assigning value to each, is essential, according to Block.

The advice from Michelle Trumpower, deputy general counsel at Ingersoll Rand, is to jump into those challenges with both feet. She notes that many times opportunities in a career come in just such a form, and when they present themselves, you have to seize the moment.

 

Is there a common misstep that women make?

Caren Ulrich Stacy, CEO of Diversity Lab and founder of the OnRamp Fellowship, notes that everyone’s challenges and strategies for managing them are different. However, there is that common moment of truth when each woman must confront the fundamental question: fight or flight? When navigating challenges, Ulrich Stacy says, it is critical to resist the flight impulse.

Ulrich Stacy also notes that it is not only acceptable, but a good development exercise to experience what she calls “microfailures.” Those are the missteps that are not catastrophic for your career, but which can equip the lawyer with skills to deal with future challenges. Once successfully navigated, that experience builds confidence for future challenges.

 

What can women who are leading do to support others?

Lynda Bennett, chair of the insurance recovery group and a member of the executive board at Lowenstein Sandler, observes that women in leadership roles need to use their “megaphones” to support other women through challenges. By acting as champions for them, and helping them get noticed for the good work they are doing, the leaders provide critical support to help colleagues master difficult times.

 

What is one piece of advice you would offer to women who aspire to lead?

Ackerstein:  “The people I saw attain true success were those who were not solely driven for their own success. They became successful because they wanted their client, their organization and their team to be successful. ”

Bennett:  “Get comfortable with being a little selfish. One of the biggest impediments to women becoming leaders is that we are apologetic and not always good at self-advocacy.” 

Block:  “Develop the comradery you need to share stories, that will give you food for thought, and will enable you to find mentors that are great role models. Through those examples you can find ways you might want to structure your own career and set your own definition for success.”

Callahan:  “Be proactive in your career. Do not passively agree to work on boring matters because you are good at organizing the documents.”

Kiernan:  “Get to know yourself. Know what your strengths and opportunities that are beyond your technical skills.”

Mellard:  “There is such power and strength in relationships with other women. The greatest way to navigate through struggles is to build a network of and reach out to other women.”

Smith:  “You have to ensure you are OK with the fact you are not going to have it all. We put ourselves under too much pressure to either look like we are doing it all or to actually do it all.”

Trumpower:  “Don’t get there too fast. The right path is not always a path that goes right to the top.”

Ulrich Stacy:  “Fill a void. When you are walking into a new situation or a new challenge, look around for an opportunity and fill the gap.”

Weinstein Bacon:  “Your career is a marathon, not a sprint. Just keep going while recognizing the ebb and flow.”