Women and Leadership: How and Why You Want to Become a Partner

Many of us have a book living inside just waiting to get out if only we could find the time, energy and courage to write it. Recently, I discovered that someone else has written my book. The book is titled “Women on Top – The Woman’s Guide to Leadership and Power in Law Firms” by Ida O. Abbott. (Available on the National Association of Law Placement website for $80.00.) 

The American author is a well-known writer on many law practice management issues including “The Lawyer’s Guide to Mentoring”. She is also a co-founder and director of the Hastings Leadership Academy for Women at the University of California Hastings College of Law. 

I have at least 3 shelves full of books on the topic of women and the law and law practice management. I could safely dump all of them and replace them with this one book. The book is divided into three sections: the unique challenges facing women leaders (barriers, gender bias, leadership styles, traps for women to avoid); leadership in law firms (law firm structure and politics, challenges leading partners, defining leadership in the law firm context); and finally, becoming the leader you aspire to be (ambition, strategy, personal power, resilience and empowerment).

While the book is aimed at women and not at firms, men who lead law firms should read this book to understand why women leave and what could be done to retain capable women lawyers. Men as well as women can also learn about the unique challenges of leadership in a law firm and what is needed to become a partner and a leader. 

The book opens with a reference to a notable American study “The White House Project” report put out by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. ( The report notes “Law firms are harsh work environments. For women in particular, they are amongst the most difficult professional settings in which to achieve success.” The White House Project examined ten different professions and found that law was by far the most challenging profession for women to advance into partnership and leadership roles in private law firms.

While men and women lawyers start out with similar talents and commitment, men’s interest in partnership grows the longer they stay in private practice while many women lose interest in partnership the longer they practice. This lack of women in leadership positions means that firms continue to promote institutional environments that do not adjust to the reality that women make up a third of the profession. Many women, frustrated at the slow rate of change in law firms, choose to leave and take positions in business or government or start their own firms where there are not the same barriers to advancement.

Abbott lists the many reasons why women do not advance to partnership in law firms: biased assumptions about women’s competence and commitment to practice; fewer mentors and developmental work assignments; inadequate support for practice and business development and inflexible career expectations that penalize women for having responsibilities and priorities outside of work. 

She recognizes that many firms are addressing the exodus of women through training in business development, opportunities for leadership development, reduced hour policies and improved re-entry options for women taking maternity leaves. However, these measures are programmatic not transformational. They are designed to help women operate better in a man’s world. They do not recognize that the world is changing as more and more women enter the workplace and younger men increasingly want what women have been requesting for many decades.

All workplaces – not just law firms – are changing their work cultures and power structures to value the complimentary skills that women bring to business and the professions. Abbott cites the need for education to eliminate bias; better work and talent management; acceptance of new leadership styles; and a different economic model that rewards more than billable hours but also other contributions to the health, stature and profitability of the firm. 

Much of this book is an argument to convince reluctant women why they should become partners and law firm leaders. Abbott argues that many women view power negatively because they associate it with an autocratic model of leadership that exerts power over others. Women often see power as inherently unprofessional and “unfeminine”. They view some of the women who have become partners as “men in skirts” who have had to play the game by the men’s rules in order to be accepted and advance. Many younger female associates say they do not want to be like some of the women partners they see especially those who chose not to have children so they could devote their lives to their practice.

Abbott’s book shows how both men and women can become partners in law firms and achieve leadership success. It explains law firm politics and the unique challenges of leading professionals who do not want to be led. The book outlines the strengths, alliances and strategy needed to become a partner and a leader whatever your gender.

There is a particularly good chapter on resiliency – something that women especially need to learn in order to handle the many demands on their time and energy outside the office. Topics such as optimism, self-confidence, risk-taking, emotional support and physical stamina are worth learning just to stay in the game as lawyers even where there is no desire to become a partner.

Becoming a partner in a law firm is completely different than taking a management position in a corporation. Abbott has done an excellent job of explaining this leadership challenge in a comprehensive and accessible way. This is a book that both women and men in the law can benefit from reading.

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