Not Just a Pretty Face

Jane was a family law associate in a large firm where she hoped to be made partner within 2 years. While she had a good client base including clients whom she had brought to the firm and excellent billings, she felt that she was invisible to most of the partners.

She didn’t work in a large practice group and had no apparent champion who might speak for her at the partnership table. She often felt that the partners saw her family practice as a sideline service they were happy to provide their corporate clients provided they didn’t have to touch it. Family law lacked the cache of the big corporate deals or the high profile litigation.

She watched other associates – usually male – come back from court or after closing a large transaction – do the victory lap around the floor to make sure everyone knew about their success. This was not Jane’s style. Like many women, she found it very difficult to boast about her success. It felt false and embarrassing. While young boys grow up competing with one another as to who is the strongest, fastest or bravest, girls are taught to be cooperative and collaborate and be modest about their accomplishments.

But Jane knew she had to raise her profile within the firm if she were to have a shot at partnership. Observing her male colleagues she realized that she wasn’t having lunch or playing golf or even regularly having a drink in the boardroom on Friday’s with any of the partners. It wasn’t just her practice that was invisible – Jane was invisible to most of the partners. They didn’t relate to her as a friend or serious colleague but more as a helpful assistant to their clients’ occasional needs.

Jane needed to market herself within the firm just as she did outside the firm to gain clients. Jane was making a mistake common amongst women by expecting that her hard work and long hours would speak for themselves and she would be duly recognized for this without having to do anything more. Her modesty was actually erecting an invisible wall around her. What she saw as boasting, I suggested was actually building relationships with people where they could know her better. This put talking about herself into an entirely new context.

I asked Jane if there were situations where she was comfortable talking about herself. She said she was comfortable speaking to people one-on-one even if she didn’t know them well. We decided that she should start asking individual partners for lunch especially those whom she didn’t know. She decided to schedule two lunches a month and make sure that she talked about her recent new clients and successes; her interest in becoming a partner and why her practice was good for the firm and what she did outside the office. She also asked questions about the partner’s practice and his or her life. Jane was doing what she was good at – building relationships.

Next she tackled the Friday afternoon boardroom drinking sessions. Jane had usually avoided these as she didn’t drink and felt awkward when pressed to do so. She also found it challenging to compete with the many war stories. We decided that she should take a bottle of Perrier with her to the boardroom to deflect the pressure to have a beer. Next, she planned ahead of time, some interesting stories about her week that she could share one-on-one with people. Again, she was building relationships one partner at a time.

Jane also learned to accept praise for a successful result without diminishing it as if it were nothing or deflecting it out of embarrassment. Instead, she simply said “thank you” and used the opportunity to expand on why the file was challenging or how the client benefited from the success.

She also quietly advised a partner who always called her “Janey” that she preferred to be called “Jane”. She told me that the use of this nickname always made her feel like a child around him and not his equal. She noticed that he never called David “Davey” or Michael “Mikey” – and the shortened “Dave” and “Mike” didn’t have the same childish sound to her as “Janey”. In this way as well, Jane was announcing that she wanted to be taken seriously. 

All of these changes were part of Jane’s marketing plan to be seen as a player in the firm ready for partnership. Her plan also included presentations on family law issues; volunteering to sit on firm committees and circulating articles. Her biggest and boldest idea was asking a colleague in the firm to nominate her for a community award. She felt audacious and embarrassed asking but had she not asked, it would not have occurred to any of her busy colleagues to nominate her. Jane didn’t win the award but the publicity that she garnered in the press as one of the nominees brought her significant credibility both within and outside the firm. All of this translated into Jane being offered partnership 18 months after she drew up her internal marketing plan.

There are many corporate studies that have shown that men are often promoted on their potential while women have to prove themselves first before senior management will take a chance on promoting them. 

Jane didn’t wait until she was made a partner to start behaving or looking like a partner. The leadership she demonstrated in the firm and in the community, the relationships she built with key partners and the over-all confident manner in which she refused to be invisible any longer earned her the partnership. While both male and female associates can learn from this – women especially need to examine what unconscious attitudes hold them back and then promote themselves in ways that feel authentic and comfortable. No one else is going to do it for you.


  1. Jane was a family law associate in a large firm where she hoped to be made partner within 2 years.

    Two years after passing her bar admission or two years after joining the firm? The implication of your column is 2 years after becoming qualified to practice.

    You mean, then, she hoped to become a partner regardless of her level of competence? It’s the rare practitioner who is much beyond minimal competence at the 2 year point.

    (Firms take in partners who aren’t competent enough, yet, merely because they can bring in work? Who’d have figured.)

    It seems to me that if “Jane” was competent enough to be considered for partnerhp after just 2 years of practice, and had the clients to justify being invited in, then any sensible partner in that firm would have realized that. I’m going to assume that there was at least one such partner. So, if she hadn’t been invited, it seems to me there’s more to the story than your telling us, even if the problem was something in the firm culture. Or a partner feeling threatened. Or something else.

  2. Actually David, it sounds to me like she has an established practice. So, presumably she is aiming for partnership two years from the date of first meeting with Linda and starting this marketing plan.

  3. I concede that that’s one way to read the first sentence but it’s not the (ahem) plain meaning nor is it (in my view) the reading of the sentence that’s most consistent with the tenor of the column. But, if that’s what Ms. Robertson meant, she should have been more explicit.

    Also, for what it’s worth, some might wonder how and why it was that “J” could have come into the firm with an established practice and she wasn’t astute enough to deal with partnership-track issues or (2) she so quickly developed an “establsished” practice and nobody in power in the firm realized that she might walk taking her “established” practice, elsewhere. (Of course, this might just be my cynicsm colouring my view of reality.)

    I realize that LR is telling a story to make a valid point, but incomplete descriptions of one’s central premises can come back and bite.

  4. So is this a cross-examination? Why so harsh, David? And do you realize you are serving as an example of one of the premises of this article?

  5. Honesty is harsh? If so, too bad; but, then, we’re talking about a harsh profession.

    Connie: please reread what I wrote. More to the point

    I serve as one of the “premises” of the column because I’ve pointed out how incomplete – I say misleading – it is as written? I needed a good laugh. Thank you.

    Once again, I repeat what I wrote which is clear enough. There’s nothing in that article about “Jane’s” competence; but then competence and having a large client base aren’t necessarily associated. If you don’t yet know that about the legal profession, then you risk a bad burn. I hope that never happens to you, though.

    There’s nothing in the column that tells us what “Jane’s” experience and competence is. If Ms. Roberston intended that, I wonder why. If she didn’t, she erred.

    I wrote that if Jane managed to acquire an established practice after only two years out, and her firm didn’t know that, then there was a problem in her firm.

    I wrote that if Jane came in with an established practice – a lateral move – without something in writing about partnership – then that was something we should wonder about. At the least, somebody gave her bad advice. (Or she took her own, and you know the canard about people who act as their own lawyers.)

    Columns such as Ms. Robertson may or many not have useful content, but they are also advertising for the writer. In my view – note the absence of the weaseling “HO” – Ms. Robertson’s column, as written, has all the merit of a TV infomercial. (The phrasing is intentional. Some of us who were awake in the early parts of law school, and can still remember that, will remember the old case about a comparison between horse-piss and beer.)

    I’m sure Ms. Roberston is more than capable of defending herself if she takes issue with what I’ve said. Let her fight her own battles, if she thinks this is one worth fighting.

    Otherwise? As to your protest? Hamlet, Act III, scene II, using the meaning Shakespeare intended.


  6. Linda, Thanks for this column. I really like the message that people are responsible for marketing themselves within their organizations as well as outside them.

    Your article also contained some great practical examples of a personal action plan in working toward a personally recognized goal.


  7. I agree that David’s comments are a bit harsh at first read, but that’s because he sees

    Columns such as Ms. Robertson may or may not have useful content, but they are also advertising for the writer.

  8. I take the fact that Mr. Robertson hasn’t corrected me as circumstantial evidence of my suspicions. That’s not to suggest there’s anything wrong with her advertising her services, of course, so long as she doesn’t mind if somebody in her audience kicks her tires, so to speak.

  9. Oops, sorry, that’s Ms. Robertson – I’m trying to touch-type on a netbook and doing a p*ss poor job.

  10. Just reading through these comments now. “Jane” is a composite of two clients whom I worked with some years ago who both felt invisible in their firms for the reasons set out in my article. I thought it obvious that each was within two years of being considered for partnership not that they had been called a mere 2 years. In fact, both were senior associates and highly competent. The point of the article is to show the numerous ways that lawyers – and particularly women lawyers – can increase their profile in a large firm. It is a common issue I have found in coaching women lawyers that they assume their hard work, good billings and client base will automatically get them partnership. Associates also need champions at the partnership table and those champions often do not exist unless the associate has developed relationships with some of the partners. I hope that readers will focus on the marketing tips and not worry about whether Jane was competent or a very junior lawyer.

  11. Thank you for the clarification.

    I repeat my point that there was something “wrong” in the cultures of the law firm(s) involved if it took marketing of the sort you’ve described to get the firms to recognize the value of the “Janes”. My view of the truth of the matter is that the powers that be in those firms saw the value of the “Janes” but, until their hands were forced – however you and your clients accomplished it – they saw no reason to give “Jane” a key to the executive washrooms. Some might consider that “wrong”. Others might not. (I’d quote Hobbes, here – not the cartoon character – but I doubt that’s necessary.)

    Apart from that? Each of us have our own views on the value of what you’ve described as marketing. I suspect it’s rather clear where I fall on the spectrum. That does not make me right, of course, just (perhaps) a bit of a dinosaur.



  12. One thing I learned early in my career as a librarian is that sometimes coworkers (including those who I report to) may not know what I have accomplished or how I have contributed. We all have our focus, and sometimes do not see and appreciate what others are doing. A piece of advice I received in my very first job was that I need to speak up and let those I report to know what I have done. It is not something I would naturally do, having a natural tendency towards shyness. It may not fit for a lawyer, but as an administrative staff member I found writing out my accomplishments from the year and giving them to the person I reported to before my annual evaluation was written to be very helpful–it would remind them of what I had done and the value I had provided, and gave them a starting point for writing the evaluation.

    Even though law firms have lots of reporting structure for lawyers (especially time billing), it is still quite possible for contributions and accomplishments to stay buried in the numbers and go largely unseen unless someone speaks up. I see this kind of self-marketing inside the firm that Linda is recommending to fit in well with overcoming that problem.

    Sometimes it just takes being in the right social situation with the right person to be able to tell your own story and get it known, so it is good to weigh things in your own favour and participate in firm events.