“Be the Change You Want to See in the World.”

“Be the change you want to see in the world.” Gandhi’s words could be women lawyers’ “call to arms.”

Over the past few months, the conversations regarding the challenges that working women face have been loud… but maybe not so clear. Articles like… Atlantic Magazine’s, “Can Women Have It All? and The Wall Street Journal’s, “The Tyranny of the Queen Bee”, seemed like the opening act for the launch of Sheryl Sandberg’s well-publicized book, “Lean In.

Unfortunately, the message is often lost on those complaining and whining—and even Sandberg’s encouragement is perceived as a criticism of women. An Atlantic Magazine headline reads… “Sheryl Sandberg Gives American Women A Performance Review.” Is the media fueling this fire? Or are they clearing the air? In small type the subhead of that article states… “Many of the people trashing this book weren’t the ones it was written for.

I spend every day coaching and consulting with lawyers on strategies for branding and business development and from where I sit… Sheryl Sandberg has words of wisdom that are particularly powerful for women lawyers.

Sandberg writes…

In addition to the external barriers erected by society, women are hindered by barriers within themselves. We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in. We internalize the negative messages we get throughout our lives… messages that say it’s wrong to be outspoken, aggressive, more powerful than men. We lower our own expectations of what we can achieve…. Compared to our male colleagues, fewer of us aspire to senior positions.

How this relates to a “call to arms” for women attorneys is simple. Sandberg is defining what needs to change in order for women to better position themselves to reach the highest level in any field. In the legal profession it starts with developing the business, and then positioning yourself to attract the most sought after cases or matters in your field. Here are three steps that need to be taken before women lawyers can truly monetize their relationships and grow their practice. These are changes that are under your control.

Own Your Accomplishments.

Sandberg’s words are true, women lack self-confidence… I see it every day in my practice. Smart, accomplished women lawyers not owning how incredible they are. They down play compliments and accolades. At a recent conference I attended, a male lawyer introduced a very accomplished female lawyer and he basically read her bio… the facts! When she took the floor she said… “Oh, Harry I don’t deserve all that!” I kid you not! She denied her accomplishments. The response should have been… “Thank You, Harry.”

We need to be able to talk about our accomplishments. I don’t mean in a bragging way… but in a matter of FACT way. If I were to tell you, “I won the business breakthrough book of the year,” is that bragging or simply stating a fact? Master the art of feeling confident and own your accomplishments.

This is a crucial first step. Women need to do more talking and sharing about the cases they work on. Instinctively women are great at sharing, but women hold back sharing their successes in business. This has to change so that the people around you will know your strengths and accomplishments. When they are truly aware of these strengths and accomplishments, they will think of you when they have a referral. It’s as simple as that! So, own your accomplishments.

Be Your Authentic Self.

Recently I gave a speech at the University Of Miami Law School, entitled “Personal Branding… How to Differentiate Yourself.” Two young women were brave enough to raise their hands.

One who was wearing a pink hoodie explained that she was interested in criminal defense… “But, It’s so male dominated and I don’t want to have to be like one of the guys. I like wearing pink.” And the other commented that her friend didn’t get a promotion and was told that she was “too aggressive.” I have to say that I was surprised by the comments since I assumed this generation of young lawyers wouldn’t be concerned with the issues of previous generations. I was wrong!

As with many young women of their generation, they may not want to be considered a “feminist” but the thoughts of inequality still weigh heavy on their minds. So are they internalizing negative messages as Sandberg suggests?

My advice to both of these young women is the same I would have given any seasoned female lawyer. First and foremost you have to be true to yourself, make your innate strengths work for you.

Too aggressive? Is there such a thing when it comes to being a lawyer or any professional for that matter? “Aggressive” is not a bad word. Let’s not take offense to it! Say… “Thank you!” and own it! If your personal brand is as an aggressive advocate for your client… that is a good thing. And if you are in an environment that doesn’t value that… maybe it’s not an environment for you.

Wear pink… if that’s what makes you happy! It is no longer a requirement to wear a dark suit and a white blouse with a bow tie. But… was that really her issue? Or was she really commenting on wanting the freedom to do it her way? I think it was the latter. And for the most part we do have the freedom to do it our way… but few of us take it. The legal profession trains you to seek precedence. So it is no surprise that it spills into behaviors outside of dealing with legal issues. I encourage my clients to blaze their own trails. If your firm is not a comfortable environment to put family first… then go out on your own and do it your way! Instead of reaching for that elusive, work life balance… strive for harmony. Balance implies that everything must be equal, and as we know, it never is. But with harmony… life can ebb and flow.

Be the Change.

Complaining and whining about how women are treated differently may force small steps… but stepping up to the plate, doing great work, asking for more work, being a colleague everyone can count on and giving every deserving soul a hand up, regardless of gender… now that will produce giant leaps.

Own your accomplishments and your expertise. Stand up and lead… lead in your way. Today, women lawyers are in a unique position to “be the change.” Continue to forge the path that those before you struggled to attain and for those who will come after you.

Sandberg concludes…

Critics have scoffed at me for trusting that once women are in power, they will help one another, since that has not always been the case. I’m willing to take the bet. The wave of women who ascended to leadership positions were few and far between, and to survive, many focused more on fitting in than on helping others. The current wave of female leadership is increasingly willing to speak up. The more women attain positions of power, the less pressure there will be to conform, and the more they will do for other women. Research already suggests that companies with more women in leadership roles have better work-life policies, smaller gender gaps in executive compensation, and more women in midlevel management.

I too will take the bet along with Sandberg… women will help one another. One day there will be no need for this conversation and along with that, no need to say “woman” lawyer… it will simply be… lawyer.


  1. Maureen Fitzgerald, PhD

    I practiced law for 20+ years. I refused to admit (even to myself) that there were any gender barriers. I (like all my brilliant and assertive female colleagues) fell hook-line-and sinker for the myth that women were their own worst enemies. We attended talk after talk to learn about what we were doing wrong. Wear more black. Speak a bit louder. Brag. For gosh sake, don’t cry. And of course the double binds: Be strong but not stronger than a man. Be ambitious but not too ambitious. Be forward but not aggressive. I am exhausted by all the rhetoric that still thinks women simply need to change. And to add insult to injury, we tell women they have meaningful choices, like: If you want to mother your children, kiss your career goodbye. My current research (for my upcoming book) states in no uncertain terms that if we really want women to be free and powerful we need re-build our institutions and policies (e.g., legal, economic, educational etc.) with women in mind. We can no longer simply blame women. So stop it.

  2. I have practiced law for approximately 20 years in the U.S. in a variety of practice areas– disability rights, criminal defense, labor, employment and education. I have worked in environments that are dominated by men and have a strong culture of machismo. The problem in male dominated fields of work is that femininity is viewed as weakness. So you can talk all you want about being your authentic self, but if the environment you are working in is hostile to that authentic self, you may find it to be more of a liability than an asset.

    I don’t think that women lack self confidence. I think that women have more humility and a greater awareness of the contribution of others to their success. We are uncomfortable taking all the credit and will respond to a recitation of our accomplishments with a “I don’t deserve all that!” because we know that our best work is often a product of collaboration. Or we simply do not want to be singled out because it upsets the balance we may have achieved in our relationship with others.

    Femininity is about being more concerned with making sure that everyone in our family/community/world is recognized, valued and nurtured. It is not about standing out on top of everyone else. Women lead by bringing people together by consensus, by cultivating strong, nurturing relationships and community. Men are socialized and/or pre-programmed by nature to seek an alpha-style domination over others. They are encouraged to climb over others and take credit to move up in the pecking order. This behavior is called “confidence,” but really, it is just pragmatic self-interest.

    Why should women have to forfeit any of our pro-social behaviors like humility and strong sense of community? Why don’t we insist that men be more like us? In fact, doesn’t that need to come first? To have society truly appreciate the value and strength of femininity and encourage all people, regardless of gender, to incorporate those values into our approach in the work environment?

  3. Thank you Susan Scott and Maureen Fitzgerald for continuing the conversation.