Leadership Training for Women Lawyers: Transforming Women and the Places Where They Work

Sheryl Sandberg’s recent book “Lean In” urges women to develop greater confidence by moving past internal barriers and leveraging their strengths to move into positions of greater responsibility. This is easier said than done. How do you increase your self-confidence and capitalize on your strengths to do this? How do you overcome inner barriers or external biases if you are not even aware what they are? The answer is through leadership training.

Leadership training is one of the most under-valued and misunderstood opportunities for lawyers – especially women lawyers – to advance their careers. While lawyers regularly take courses in the law, practice management and business development, rarely do lawyers take courses in leadership development; often believing that only those in management positions need these skills.

Management programs focus primarily on business processes while leadership programs focus primarily on people and forging strong relationships. Good leadership programs start with the most important of all relationships – the one we have with ourselves. It is an opportunity to develop the confidence and personal skills to be a leader in your own life and career so that your personal definition of success can become a reality.

Leadership has historically been defined in male military hierarchical terms, using adjectives such as authoritative, competitive, combative, decisive – the traditional command and control leadership style associated with leading armies or hierarchical corporations. However, the advent of a highly educated workforce, less respect for hierarchies and authority, universal access to information through the inter-net and the arrival of women into the workforce has made this old-style of leadership antiquated and ineffective.

Today’s leadership skills emphasize emotional and social intelligence, collaboration, innovation, teamwork, consultation, flat organizations and relationship building. This type of leadership is often described as transformative as opposed to transactional leadership. Women often gravitate towards this more transformative style because it is more socially acceptable for women to lead through influencing and including others rather than through the more traditionally masculine command and control style of leadership.

While leadership training may include topics such as strategic thinking, communicating a vision for the future and motivating and inspiring others, it starts by looking within and discovering one’s inner strengths, motivations, core values and tolerance for risk. Leadership courses specifically developed for women alert women to the many unseen barriers that women must learn to navigate in what is still a male world. These barriers and the solutions to overcome them are brilliantly set out in “Through the Labyrinth”: The Truth about How Women Become Leaders” by Eagly and Carli.

How can leadership training help women stay in the practice of law and move into partnership and other leadership positions? Here are a few examples.

  • Women need to understand the differences and strengths between a woman’s leadership style and a man’s. They can then leverage those skills for the benefit of themselves, their clients, firms, families and society at large. Understanding and valuing these strengths, leads to greater self-confidence to stay in the practice of law and accept greater responsibility and leadership roles.
  • Women must be aware of conscious and unconscious gender biases that may get in the way of advancement so they can develop strategies to make sure their voices and contributions are being judged as equal to a man’s.
  • Women need to learn how to negotiate more effectively on their own behalf. Women must learn to ask for what they want and not expect that their hard work will be recognized simply on it’s own merit. This is especially important when negotiating compensation, work arrangements, appointments to powerful committees and gaining access to valuable work experience. Women must be willing to push for advancement while at the same time negotiate the often gender biased assumptions that such women are pushy and ambitious and thus not likeable or promotable.
  • Women must not always put other’s needs ahead of their own and aim to please others at the cost of their own energy and value. This does not mean becoming selfish or self-centered, but to strike an appropriate balance between one’s own needs and supporting others. Women must learn to say “no” and set workable boundaries around the many over-lapping parts of their lives.
  • Women must understand how differently men and women have been socialized to speak. This lack of awareness can lead to greater conscious or unconscious bias when clients or colleagues are evaluating a woman’s effectiveness through a male lens. Understanding gender differences in communication styles, allows a woman to be a more effective lawyer.
  • Women must develop resiliency so they have the time, energy and desire to manage both a successful career and meet the demands of raising a family or caring for elderly parents. Leadership programs focus on developing the practices necessary to lead a healthy and balanced life.

Leadership training is a transformational experience for the learner. Leadership is not just about leading others. It is also about leading and transforming ourselves. It is only when we are transformed that we can transform our workplaces.

As Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”


  1. This article is very timely, given this is exactly what will be addressed at the Canadian Bar Association’s National Women Lawyers Forum Leadership Conference to be held in Montreal on October 4th and 5th.

  2. Maureen Fitzgerald

    I read Lean In and felt that it said very little new. It tells women what we women lawyers have always been told: it’s a mans world so toughen up and play like a man. For the last 8 years I have been writing and blogging about the opposite. I explain why this does not work. For 20 years as a lawyer I followed the rules and “succeeded” but at the high cost of losing most of my feminine aspects, most of my relationships and perhaps my sensibilities. The system of law, corporate and government policy and most law practice business models need to be changed if we REALLY want women to stay and advance in law. Self help and resilience training may feel good in the short term but not the long term.

  3. Great article! Don’t forget the importance of body language – think confident > act confident > be seen as confident!