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Women in Law: Some Advice from Successful Women

Authors: Stephanie Pindyck Costantino, Yvonne M. McKenzie and Sara B. Richman

11/15/2016
Women in Law: Some Advice from Successful Women

Reprinted with permission from the November 15, 2016 issue of The Legal Intelligencer. © 2016 ALM Media Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.

In any article addressing the state of women in the legal profession, the hard facts speak volumes. Despite law firms' increased attention to advancing women attorneys, the number of female equity partners industrywide has remained flat over the last decade. More women are graduating from law school and entering the field than ever before, but they are under-represented among the legal elite.

However, the number of Big Law female partners isn't the only metric by which to measure success. Rather, any conversation about women in law should give equal consideration to developing high-quality candidates for partnership, as well as for in-house and other roles. In the high-mobility Big Law world, ­measuring the number of female partners yields an unrealistic, overly pessimistic view of the contributions of women in the profession.

The diversity of women in the law is matched only by the diversity of the positions of power they occupy. For each attorney, her ideal position of power and her definition of success will be different. This is the opinion of Pepper Hamilton's Julie Corelli, who holds many leadership positions, including vice chair of the firm's Executive Committee and leader of the Commercial Department.

"Success breeds power, but the inverse is not necessarily true. Everyone—male or female—defines success differently, but women are less inclined to hone in on their definition. Being recognized for the skills and expertise you have worked hard to build is a big part of my definition of success," Corelli said.

Reaching the partnership level may be one woman's definition of success, while others push further, seeking to become a top revenue generator. Being known as a rainmaker who excels at landing new business and developing relationships is a source of great power for any attorney, male or female. But for women, having a strong book of business affords independence and ­freedom, and increases the likelihood of becoming involved in important firm and practice group decisions. Moreover, female rainmakers are in a position to pay it forward to other women lawyers and assist them in overcoming the implicit biases that prevent women from ascending to rainmaker status.

Women rainmakers can serve as effective mentors to other female attorneys, making sure that women are well represented when choosing a team to staff a matter or determining who should be included in a pitch. Women rainmakers can also transition their books of business to female attorneys (or teams that involve women ­lawyers) when they retire or leave a firm.

While the breakdown of Big Law rainmakers by gender still skews heavily male, there has been improvement for women. Nina Gussack, who served as chair of Pepper Hamilton for seven years, was one of the first female top executives at a large Philadelphia law firm. She maintained her status as a top revenue generator while holding this position and helped to pave the way for other women to lead large firms in the city.

The 2015 "Best Law Firms for Women" survey from Working Mother Media and Flex-Time Lawyers showed an uptick in the number of women recognized as top revenue generators (16 percent of the survey's top firms had at least three women among their top 10 rainmakers, up from 11 percent in 2014). While this growth may not be fast enough for some, it provides an encouraging counterpoint to the oft-cited flat growth rate for women partners.

Rainmaking is not the only source of power for women lawyers. Another measure of their success is achieving internal positions of power. Pepper Hamilton appointed its first female executive partner, Barbara W. Mather, in 1992, and while only a small number of Big Law firms have elevated women to their top leadership spot, women are increasingly playing roles in firm management—as practice leaders, department heads, office managing partners and steering/management committee members.

Pepper Hamilton's Jan Levine is one of these ­lawyers. Levine, a commercial litigation partner with a focus on healthcare and antitrust, is also co-chair of the firm's commercial litigation practice group.

"I greatly enjoy being co-chair. It is challenging and has provided an opportunity to develop different skills and to work with people across offices and disciplines. Leadership takes understanding of how to tackle and solve issues and create pathways to meet goals. It is not about ambition, but rather, inclusion and a joint effort in moving forward. And when goals are achieved, it is greatly satisfying—like winning a case," she said.

Even if a female attorney does not hold a firm management position, she can gain power by establishing herself as a go-to resource for colleagues on particular issues. Expertise increases her chances of being selected for high-profile assignments or cross-selling opportunities. Consciously and conscientiously building an internal reputation as an expert leads to opportunities that build an external profile, which leads to advancement opportunities in the future.

Women attorneys can also derive power from positions they hold outside their firms. Leadership roles in bar associations or practice-specific organizations can help women develop their skills and professional ­networks, and board of directors positions are often springboards to bringing in new clients or retaining existing clients.

Kay Kress, a partner in Pepper Hamilton's corporate restructuring and bankruptcy practice group, has had this experience. She became involved with the American Bar Association early in her career, and her work with the organization continues to pay dividends.

"As a young lawyer, I was fortunate enough to be trained by some of the best practitioners in the country. As I progressed in my career, I made the decision to get involved in a professional organization in which none of my mentors were involved. This required more work on my part, but it enabled me to establish my own ­network and relationships. I joined the business bankruptcy committee of the business law section of the ABA and ultimately was asked to be the chair of a large, prestigious committee. This position has opened many doors and produced a significant amount of work for me and my firm," she said.

So how does a woman in the law achieve a "position of power"? No two women answer the same way. For insight, we posed that question to some notable women lawyers in the Pennsylvania legal community.

Pepper Hamilton's Hannah Dowd McPhelin is one such lawyer. A former legal assistant, McPhelin attended law school, participated in Pepper's summer associate program, and was elevated to partner in the real estate practice group in 2015. As someone who has climbed the ranks within the firm, she has a unique view on what it takes for a young woman lawyer to succeed.

"My advice would be to take ownership. Whatever task is assigned to you, big or small, billable or not—own it and do it to the best of your ability. Also, listen. The solution to a client's problem may seem clear, but you need to consider the client's objectives and business considerations. Learning to listen for these will help you come up with the best solution for the client and make you an invaluable resource," McPhelin said.

Julie Corelli has similar advice: "Work hard, have deep expertise and conviction (i.e., grit), know what is important to you (i.e., have a thick skin), have patience and a long-term focus, demonstrate a great sense of humor, know you are not the smartest person in the room, never assume you are entitled to anything, and, as the country song goes, know how to be humble and kind."

Achieving that coveted position of power might be a reward in itself, but many women lawyers often find that the work undertaken to reach success is just as important as the end goal.

That's the perspective of Pepper Hamilton's Joan Arnold, chair of the tax practice group, member of the executive committee, and co-founder of Pepper's ­women's initiative. As president of the American College of Tax Counsel and a vice-chair of the tax section of the ABA, Arnold credits her work to reach these positions as crucial to her successful practice.

"Working to get my leadership positions gave me experiences that went well beyond the learning of ­substantive tax law. I have had the opportunity to work with and learn from an incredible community of attorneys and elected and executive branch officials. Having these roles gives me an immediate patina of respect, and it leads to more opportunities being available to me. I enjoy being called upon by the firm to assist in our management, by the government for input on tax matters, and, ­foremost, by clients to be their trusted advisor," Arnold said.

At the end of the day, every woman's path to success will be different. But it is important to keep highlighting the stories of successful women. As lawyers, we examine precedent to see what's possible and then push further to see what's next. By looking at those who have come before, we are able to achieve our own personal and professional goals. Pepper's Audrey Wisotsky, a partner in the financial services practice group, agrees. She offers this ­perspective:

"Women in leadership positions serve as role models for other female attorneys—they demonstrate that women can move up the ranks and be successful. Most of all, women leaders can help effect change so that female attorneys have greater opportunities to develop robust careers and practices."

The material in this publication was created as of the date set forth above and is based on laws, court decisions, administrative rulings and congressional materials that existed at that time, and should not be construed as legal advice or legal opinions on specific facts. The information in this publication is not intended to create, and the transmission and receipt of it does not constitute, a lawyer-client relationship.