How Women In Law Can Advance Toward Leadership Roles

14 April 2022 Foley Career Perspectives Blog
Author(s): Kimberly A. Yelkin

This article originally appeared in Law360 Pulse on April 14, 2022. It is republished here with permission.

Women in law firm leadership add tremendous value to their clients, their colleagues and the firm as a whole.

According to a recent study by Business Insider, female leaders are more effective at taking initiative, displaying integrity, building motivational relationships, and driving results and meaningful change.1

Having women in leadership roles at law firms increases representation, inspiring women to apply for jobs and pursue leadership opportunities in a field that has previously been dominated by men. As such, it's important to recognize the special contributions made by women in leadership roles within law and create a path that continuously promotes women to these leadership positions.

For example, I became the office managing partner for Foley & Lardner LLP's Austin office — formerly Gardere Wynne Sewell prior to the 2018 combination — in 2002. Before that, I was the first female partner in the Austin office of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP.

Throughout my 42-year legal career, I've learned so much about what it takes to pave a path for female leaders. My advice for others who aspire for leadership roles is simple: prioritize collaboration, inclusivity and integrity in everything you do.

Collaboration is the key to success.

Growing up, I was told, "You are only as good as the people around you." This mantra has pushed me to foster a collaborative environment in each of my workplaces.

The practice of law requires the consideration of multiple perspectives and collaboration with various stakeholders, both internally and externally, to achieve an outcome that provides our clients excellent representation and leads to the greater good overall.

As a female leader, I strongly believe that I would not have achieved success without a collaborative mindset.

When I first began practicing law, I was one of very few women in the profession. I had to go above and beyond to demonstrate my experience to clients. I focused first on proving to myself that I was a quality lawyer, as well as a trusted adviser to my clients and a mentor to others. That attitude contributed greatly to my success. You have to trust in yourself and your own abilities first before any of your clients or your colleagues will trust you.

Collaboration among different sectors of a law firm provides valuable learning experiences and enhances the value of the services we provide for our clients. If you're not an expert in something, talk to someone who is. If you're in a hiring capacity, being intentional in hiring experts from unique fields is a great way to make room for collaboration within your organization.

The more people you have around you, the more knowledge you stand to gain.

Firms must be inclusive to retain individuals from diverse backgrounds.

While strides have been made to bring female and minority attorneys into leadership roles, there is, no doubt, still room for improvement to ensure anyone has the opportunity to rise through the ranks and be supported. It is up to all of us, men and women, to make that possible.

It's not enough to just hire attorneys who belong to underrepresented groups. Firm leadership must commit to creating a work environment where people feel included, seen, heard and respected. It's also important for women and people of color to see advancement paths for their careers.

Representation matters. The more we see women and racial minorities in leadership roles, the more those individuals will believe they can achieve the same. It's vital to ensure that we are giving women and individuals of color within our own firm a strong leadership voice.

Managing work-life balance is essential.

Younger female lawyers believe they can achieve a comfortable work-life balance, but I have to be honest, it's hard. Finding that balance will be a lifelong pursuit, and it's a constant battle of reprioritization and reevaluation.

Technology has afforded us more options to be available for our clients, even when out of the office. However, my clients appreciated and valued the fact that I wanted to attend my child's school performance or athletic event, for example. They were not only flexible, but it made me seem more genuine and real to them. They were experiencing the same struggles with work-life balance themselves.

I adopted my daughter from Moscow, when she was 11 months old. As a single mother, I had to juggle my work while raising her. I was fortunate to have the ability to hire excellent help, which allowed me to remain committed to my legal career, but there were always times when I felt that I needed to rebalance my priorities.

I have learned that it is possible to have a successful career and a fulfilling family life. Today, my daughter is a young professional woman thriving in her new job. She is driven and dedicated to success in both her personal life and her career, and I believe she learned the importance of perseverance, clear communication skills and achieving excellence in her work at a young age because I modeled it for her.

Children gain so much insight from watching their parents navigate their career, especially mothers who show their children that business and family success can be achieved. Still, like anything else that's important it requires continuous work to find the right balance.

Integrity is essential in leadership.

As you start out in your career, it's important to listen and seek to understand your company culture and the people on your team. It is only by listening that you can establish trust and lead with integrity and authenticity.

Being transparent in your decisions is also important. Even if a decision is not popular, it's important to be honest with your reasoning. To be any kind of successful leader, you should always attempt to achieve authentic expression of your values in all that you do, and clients and young lawyers alike will look up to that.

I have often had to deliver bad news to clients and employees. Whether it's speaking hard truths about the ability to reach clients' goals or communicating with an employee about their performance, it is essential to be straightforward.

In my experience, the majority of people appreciate and trust clear messaging.

Becoming a leader in your field is a journey, and you cannot do it alone.

Finding a mentor is a great way to learn. My mentors, who back then were mostly men, taught me the value of creating an environment of collaboration and a place where women could achieve leadership roles. They encouraged me to ask questions, even if I thought the answer was obvious to other people, because it's the only way to learn from those around you and develop your own leadership skills.

You will find your own leadership style from your experiences with other people. One day a light bulb will go off, and you will realize that you are ready to lead. It is also helpful to rely on your female friends to serve as a sounding board and give you a reality check when you need help managing your career.

My last piece of advice is to simply lean in. Let people know you are interested in a leadership role. Volunteer for nonbillable projects when given the opportunity. Demonstrate to others that you are authentic and committed to the organization's culture and strategy.

Both women and men will face obstacles in their journey to becoming a leader, but if you are confident in yourself, unafraid to ask questions and always ready to learn, you will succeed.

1 https://www.businessinsider.com/study-women-are-better-leaders-2014-1.

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