I want to note up front that I had an overwhelmingly positive experience as a woman in Biglaw.  I felt respected as an equal professionally and intellectually.  Far from feeling that my gender was holding me back, if anything, I felt like being a confident and capable woman (in a predominantly male environment) set me apart in a positive way with clients and senior lawyers.  That said, after practicing for eight years, I now appreciate that there are unique challenges that women lawyers experience during their early careers that can delay or even derail their development.  Below are some proactive ways to navigate these thorny dynamics and avoid common pitfalls that are experienced (not exclusively, but often) by women making their professional start.  Approaching these challenges with clear eyes will help you take ownership of your professional development and get the most out of your early years in Biglaw.

Don’t Let Yourself Get Siloed into Ministerial Tasks.

There is a dynamic I observed—in my own practice, as well as in that of other female lawyers, whether at my firm, other firms or in-house—wherein women often volunteer to take on some of the less glamorous aspects of the job, only to find themselves permanently enmeshed in those tasks, which tend to be administrative in nature, time-consuming, and (though essential to the running of a matter) largely unnoticed by senior lawyers.  Meanwhile, freed from these ministerial assignments, their male colleagues wind up in more visible, substantive roles that offer greater opportunities for skills development.  (I think this is especially common on the litigation side because civil and white collar matters can drag on for years with infrequent opportunities to reorganize responsibilities on the team.  For example, if I stepped up to lead the e-discovery effort for a large investigation, two years later, I’d often find myself languishing in that same role, which was no longer advancing my learning.)

If you find yourself in this all-too-common trap, raise the issue with the senior associate or partner on the matter and discuss either switching up the team’s responsibilities or getting additional junior resources to take some of that workload off of your plate.  If you’re rebuffed (for example, with the “you’re the expert on this stuff, so let’s just keep it as is” excuse), press a little further.  Respectfully say that you feel you are not developing new skills in this current role and discuss what can be done to expand your responsibility on the team.  (Pro tip:  Keep in mind that the priority of the senior lawyer is getting the work done right for the client, so it helps to provide a workable solution.  Volunteer, for example, to supervise the work going forward while no longer taking the lead on it.)

Learn To Delegate, and Don’t Feel Guilty About It.

A related conundrum in which developing lawyers—and, in my experience, developing female lawyers in particular—find themselves is an inability to take a step back from the details of an issue, even when junior support is available.  I was (and am) a control freak, and I found it hard to let go and trust that my juniors were taking over my responsibilities effectively as I was working my way up the totem pole.  The problem, however, is that failing to let go doubles your workload.  You’re still up to your elbows in the details of the junior work, while also taking on the new senior responsibilities.

Learn to delegate, and don’t feel guilty about it.  Learning to manage others is an important skill to develop, and one that is essential to advancement.  Only through delegation will you have the time to focus on more substantive work and opportunities for new skills development.  Take the time to train up the person you are supervising on everything they need to know to take the lead on that role, give them the latitude to learn to do it themselves, and develop solid oversight practices that allow you to evaluate their work.  And in doing so, be honest with yourself:  Are you truly just reviewing and revising the juniors’ work?  Or are you using the review process as an opportunity to delve all the way back into that project?  If it’s the latter, you have not really delegated anything.

Make Your Voice Heard

In a recent post about law school, I wrote about observing my 1L classmates eagerly volunteering to speak during class, while I hid in the back row, terrified to be called on.  What I didn’t mention in that post is that—overwhelmingly—those volunteers were male.  Speaking very generally from my own experiences (and this certainly does not apply to everyone), men are often quicker to speak up than women during their early years as lawyers.  There are plusses and minuses to each approach.  On one hand, garnering visibility and developing public speaking skills can be beneficial to one’s early career.  On the other hand, at the beginning, you don’t know what you don’t know, and heedlessly speaking up can result in embarrassing missteps.  But, over time, not asserting yourself will start to hold you back.

If you find yourself hesitating to contribute to team discussions while your peers are doing so, . . . push through your discomfort and start speaking up now.

If you find yourself hesitating to contribute to team discussions while your peers are doing so, I advise you to push through your discomfort and start speaking up now.  It could be as small and simple as pointing out a key fact during a meeting, answering a question, or having a document at the ready when it’s being discussed.  If you and your peers often collaborate on assignments, insist, at least some of the time, that you be one submitting the work to the senior associate or partner.  (Pro tip:  A key way to help you do this with confidence—particularly if speaking up is difficult for you—is to be ultra-prepared for meetings and on top of the details in your matter.  If you know the facts like the back of your hand, you’ll be able to jump in with that answer.  If you took excellent notes on the call with opposing counsel, you’ll be able to retrieve the key point when the partner needs it.  If you’ve thought about the topics of the meeting in advance and printed out the relevant documents, you’ll have the key document in-hand when the client is looking for it.)
Begin by finding small ways to ensure your contributions are being noticed by senior lawyers.  It will get more comfortable as you do it more, and you’ll be able to make larger, and more visible, contributions as time goes on.

If There Is an Issue, Speak Up for Yourself

On one hand, the firm should be taking the time to assess the opportunities everyone is getting and ensuring that there are no disparities—along gender lines or otherwise—in the development of its lawyers.  On the other hand, we live in the real world of client service.  We’re all busy, and every team has its own specific needs and dynamics that may drive who is getting what work.  If you feel you are not getting the opportunities to which you are entitled, you have two options:  (i) you can sulk, blame the firm, complain incessantly over snacks in the associate lounge, anonymously post on ATL and/or quit the firm; or (ii) you can speak up about it. I highly recommend the latter.  Speak to a mentor, the staffing attorney for your group, your supervisor on your matter or anyone senior who might be able to offer perspective on how to secure more opportunities.  Give the firm a chance to make it right before walking out the door.  Here are a few ways you might raise the issue:

  • Inquire about taking on a new, smaller matter (including pro bono) where there will be more opportunities for you to work directly with the partner and build specific skills you feel have been lacking thus far in your career.
  • If there is a specific (realistic) opportunity or role on your matter for which you would like to be selected—for example, attending an upcoming meeting for which you have taken the lead in drafting the presentation—ask for it. You may be told no, but it will at least force the senior lawyer to think about it and explain the rationale.  And it makes it more likely that you will be considered for future opportunities because you have expressed interest.
  • Reach out to a partner with a practice that is of interest to you (ideally one who is known to be good to work for), and volunteer for the next new matter that comes in in that area. Law firm partners are excited about their work, and an associate who expresses interest will be viewed favorably.  Email is ok, but consider stopping by for a face-to-face chat.  You can email his or her assistant to ask when would be a good time to swing by for a short meeting or try to catch the partner after a group lunch.  My most rewarding assignments came from times when I spoke up and expressed interest.

If you feel you are not getting the opportunities to which you are entitled, you have two options:  (i) you can sulk, blame the firm, complain incessantly over snacks in the associate lounge, anonymously post on ATL and/or quit the firm; or (ii) you can speak up about it.

Try to approach these conversations positively and without a chip on your shoulder.  You never know the business dynamics or client pressures driving staffing decisions.  If the firm’s response to such requests is dismissive or not justified in your opinion, now you know, and you can make decisions about your future at the firm accordingly.  But suffering in silence (or abruptly quitting) does a disservice to everyone—mostly you.  Take responsibility for your professional development and do what is within your control to get the best work possible.  It will make a meaningful difference in your law firm experience.