This is part one of a two part series about women lawyers and self-promotion by Rachel Brushfield, Career strategist and coach.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that in the British legal profession than men, the number of female and male lawyers start equal at trainee level, and by partner level, the per cent shifts dramatically with less women.

‘The sight of a woman in the British Boardroom is rare enough; that of one in the managing director’s chair is almost as exotic as a pair of nesting ospreys.’ Carol Kennedy

Why is this?

As it is a natural human trait to like people who are like you, and therefore to recruit others who are similar, this might indicate that law firms remain the domain primarily of men at senior partner level long into the future. Women lawyers promoting themselves is therefore critical to change this.

‘I would rather move forward and fail than go backward into safe territory’ Cate Blanchette

Including research with a cross section with women lawyers, this article, part one of two articles, explores the key factors affecting women lawyers and self-promotion and their impact on career progression. The factors explored are sex, age, race, beliefs, effect of having children and communication differences.

Self-promotion is important, both to succeed internally and progress up the career ladder, and also to attract new clients and get more work from existing clients. For many women lawyers, self-promotion is easier said than done.

Why is self-promotion important?

Self-promotion is no longer an optional extra in the legal profession, if it ever was. Fewer partner positions now exist and firms demand well-rounded lawyers, not just with a technical specialist skill, but emotional intelligence, good people skills and client management /rainmaker abilities a prerequisite for achieving partner status.

But with many women lawyers seeing self-promotion as an onerous task and that it is pushy and arrogant to sing your own praises, it is not just them who loses, it is also their firms through their opting out slowly over the course of their careers.

A number of factors affect women’s attitude to self-promotion.

Sex differences

Anne Moir, neurobiologist explores the differences between men and women in her book ‘Brain sex’ Quite simply, men and women’s brains are wired differently and this affects how they behave in life and especially in competitive environments and situations. In law firms, because the number of men outnumbers the number of women at senior levels of influence, are often especially competitive environments. This affects how women behave, and especially under stress, women are neurologically primed to tend others. Women tend to think more negatively than men and can relieve their feelings of anxiety by caring for others.

Applying this to self-promotion, they are more likely to help others than sing their own praises. Research shows that women tend to perform worse than men in competitive situations, which explains why there are few lawyers in the dispute resolution and barrister parts of the legal profession. Women fear rejection and are more easily harmed by negative assessment. They require friendship and affiliation, whereas men are greater risk takers and ‘in it to win it’. Women are very good at ‘beating themselves up’ mentally and lawyers have particularly sharp minds, so this is heightened.

In a nutshell, women are more co-operative and collaborative by nature than men, whereas men are more competitive, combative and greater risk takers than women.

Women hope their hard work to be noticed, whereas men are much more upfront about their achievements, present a case and talk themselves up.

Beliefs about self promotion

Women possess some strong negative beliefs and feelings about self-promotion, which include feeling it’s pushy, arrogant, difficult, not British or that if they were any good, the clients would just flow in. Ultimately they think they must do client work first because this is what goes on the timesheets and is measured and then they’ll think about promotion and marketing if they get time. And there’s never enough time. The billable hour culture only magnifies this. Women worry a lot and especially what other people think as they are driven by ‘tending and befriending.’ They worry about coming across as an aggressive ‘Mrs Thatcher type’ character.

Communication differences

Women talk about people and relationships, men talk about sport and things. It is easy for men to bond, find common ground quickly and then fast track to work issues. The majority of firms are still predominantly men, so women have to adapt their communication style to fit. In addition, women, especially when married, may worry about how their spending time with senior male managing partners to influence their promotion prospects may be misconstrued.

Generation differences

Younger female lawyers, generation Y who are aged 18-30 find it easier to promote themselves than their parents who paved the way. Children of the baby boomers and the second generation of women to enjoy equal status careers to men, generation Y have more confidence and expectation. There is a fine line between confidence and arrogance and it is vital that law firms give their partners training to handle younger recruits. Generation Y want responsibility from a young age and they will vote with their feet if they don’t get it. Serving time, as previous generations of lawyers have, is unacceptable to them, as they believe in getting promoted on ability. This understandably may put the noses out of joint of partners who have achieved their level the hard way and more slowly, and they may block progression of rising talent.

Impact of race

Non-whites with a history of being passed over and treated with discrimination in many contexts, not being given equal opportunities can lead to the current generation having a strong determination to succeed. This can act as a fuel for self-promotion, driven by a hunger for achievement and equal rights. It hasn’t been a question of hitting the glass ceiling but being forced historically to stay in the basement due to prejudice and bias.

Working mothers

Juggling a career and raising children with women still doing the lion’s share of running the household and childcare has a huge impact on self-promotion. Often already behind from having taken maternity leave, working mothers often keep their head down and focus on client work, in ‘survival mode’. In addition, it could be argued that having children makes women more conciliatory and open to compromise in their behaviour from negotiating with difficult toddlers, so even less competitive than they already were, compared with men in a more ‘black and white’ profession than many.

Fathers quite simply have more time to network and feel more comfortable about it. Working mothers juggle more and the ball left in the air is rarely self-promotion, given all the other balls they are juggling. If they are working part time, or three days in the office and one at home, time for self promotion is even more stretched and the luxury of lunch with senior partners or prospects feels out of reach.

Parenthood can affect new fathers in a different way, feeling pressure to earn more, especially if their partner isn’t working or is on reduced wages on maternity leave. This creates a hunger for success and the greater financial reward that comes with it that fuels their natural drive to be competitive.

So what is the true cost to firms of the impact of women lawyers not being as good as self-promotion as men?

As like attracts like and people tend to promote people like them, this creates a shrinking pool of diversity. Problems will not be solved with the same mindset that created them, so new and fresh approaches are required to make law firms fit for purpose over the next 20 years.

The cost of women not achieving partner level is lost productivity and energy spent on worry and self-doubt rather than proactive initiatives for the firm.

The opportunity cost in lost billable hours is immense. Success breeds success. Conversely, disappointment breeds lack of confidence, being criticised, not receiving flagship projects, feeling demotivated and performance nose-diving and then opting out. A high price to pay no firm can afford.

Women may hate telling people how good they are, but they also hate being passed over for promotion and getting paid less for the same level than men. Being more emotional and anxious and influenced by what other people think of them, they will disengage, believing they can’t win. The energy spent on worry and talking about their frustrations if used instead on self-promotion would make a huge difference.

No wonder learning and development and executive coaching programmes are being developed in many law firms specifically to support women. They provide a safe and confidential space and network for women to create new strategies to succeed in a male culture. Law firms need to change and women possess many of the skills that can make this happen. Disengagement of women and the drain of their talent has to be stopped, not just in law firms but in all professions. Like flowers not watered so they shrivel and die.

As women lawyers, investing time in your self-promotion is like a good steady investment. Small deposits made often are painless and will reap dividends before you know it, whereas failure to invest could lead you into overdraft.

For firms, investing in initiatives to support women lawyers e.g. mentoring and executive coaching will be handsomely rewarded by the loyalty and hard work that results, with a positive impact on billings. If women stop stopping themselves, the impact could be substantial.

In part two, Rachel Brushfield will explore solutions and tips to help women lawyers to feel comfortable about self-promotion and initiatives that will help law firms to attract, retain and develop female legal talent.

Rachel Brushfield is a Talent Liberator at Energise, a career strategist, coach and published author with 30 years’ experience. She was the only non-lawyer table host out of nine table hosts at the recent Law Society WLD Speed Networking event on 31 May 2016.

Read part two


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