For nearly 30 years, the number of male and female student in US law schools has been about equal. Why then do so few female attorneys remain in the profession and maintain long-term, successful legal careers?
Data shows women make up only 23 percent of partners at US law firms, and 19 percent of equity partners. By the time they reach their mid-forties – a time when lawyers should be in their most productive years – far too many women find their careers have stalled.
Not only are they not earning as much as their male counterparts, but they’re not reaching the level where they can make a real impact on the profession and society. Frustrated, disillusioned, or burnt out, many female lawyers drop out of the profession altogether.
“The leaky pipeline has become a flood,” says Atlanta attorney Sharon Rowen, who produced and directed the recent documentary Balancing the Scales about the challenges historically faced by women in the law.
ABA President Hilarie Bass has made this problem a major focus of her 2017-2018 tenure. Women today are, in fact, enrolling in law school at somewhat higher rates than men, she says, “and that’s good progress – but if we’re leaving or finding it inhospitable, then work needs to be done.”
Why are so many women lawyers leaving the legal field?
We know the traditional law firm structure – the billable hours model – creates headwinds for women who are juggling work and family obligations. Chicago lawyer Nicole Auerbach is among those who’ve argued that it disproportionately penalizes women. That’s long been the case, and you’ll find many points of view on whether it’s durable or doomed.
At the same time, many female lawyers could do more to cultivate skills that promote themselves and strengthen their business development. Some women delude themselves by thinking their superiors will recognize their talents and promote them, but as New York securities lawyer Angela Turiano notes, “this does not happen.”
Turiano says too many female attorneys become entrenched in daily work and miss opportunities to reap the rewards that come with visibility and prominence. To get ahead, they need to share their ideas and promote themselves as subject matter experts.
Thought leadership can be the vehicle for doing that.
Thought leadership positions you as a recognized expert in your field by sharing your ideas with influential audiences. It tells prospective clients they should turn to you for insight and guidance. And it announces to the world that your organization has the brainpower and bench strength to handle this area of the law.
In some ways, thought leadership is aligned with marketing and personal branding, but it’s not just about standing out from the crowd – it’s more timely and substantive. Thought leaders provide information and insight. They help their stakeholders understand the current state of affairs. And they provide a view of the future of their industry, what thought leadership expert Pete Weissman calls “the moonshot vision.”
Lawyers with a strong thought leadership presence bring tremendous advantage to their organizations, and yes I’m talking about revenue. That’s because clients are willing to pay – and pay more – for expertise.
They also bring value to the marketplace, because they help shape public opinion.
One female attorney I know, an expert in data protection, privacy, and cybersecurity law at a three-person firm, has become so well known as a conference speaker that she’s just made it into Who’s Who Legal as a top practitioner in her field.
Another, a litigator for a small employment law firm, has steadily built up her public profile through speaking and writing. She speaks at legal forums, and she’s a frequent author of op-eds and articles for legal and general interest publications on the gig economy, wage and hour law, and workers’ rights.
Women lawyers who become thought leaders benefit on several fronts:
- They make fuller use of their talents.
- They expand their earning potential.
- They provide more value to their firms.
- They gain the ability to make change.
As Denise Brosseau says in Ready to Be a Thought Leader? How to Increase Your Influence, Impact and Success, recognized experts “have the power to persuade, the status and authority to move things in a new direction, and the clout to implement real progress and widespread innovation.”
At the top of their game, female thought leaders are also unlikely to leave the law and take their talents to a different field.
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