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Many law firms say that they wish that they had more women lawyers interested in leadership but can’t find them.

They say that have been trying to develop the talent of their women through training programs. Training programs are massively popular, but the short and long-term results from attending them is undeniably poor.

Training programs teach generalized concepts of leadership – e.g. What makes a great leader and how to be one -- without taking into account the unique characteristics and strengths of the individual.  

It’s unrealistic to expect that someone will exemplify the qualities of a great leader by simply attending a few training programs. Would you expect to be a professional golfer after watching some film clips or a powerpoint presentation and listening to someone talk for a few hours?

The idea is ludicrous when put in those terms. So, why do we expect it of women?

The relationship and interpersonal skills that are needed to be a great leader are learned behaviors. People need to practice them in a variety of contexts to really understand and utilize them.

It’s a kinesthetic experience, like learning to drive a car. At first, you need to think so many variables to make sure that you don’t endanger the lives of yourself and others. After a while, the skills needed to maneuver a car come easily and naturally.  Once you've driven home from work a few times, you can get in the car and almost find yourself there.

Also, the traditional standards for leadership are fundamentally masculine: strong, dominant, ambitious and decisive. In most places, women are not expected to have these traits and are punished when they exhibit them. It’s not unusual for women to be labeled pushy, bitchy or unbalanced when they exhibit positive masculine qualities.

From my experience, talented women attorneys aren’t reluctant to become leaders. Many believe that their strengths – the ability to develop strong relationships, to broker compromise, to develop others and to be compassionate and attuned to the beliefs and feelings of others– are not valued at work and not seen as indicators of leadership potential.

Women attorneys, as well as many of the men attorneys in their firms, share these assumptions despite overwhelming evidence that ‘soft’ leadership skills significantly improve profitability. Simon Sinek’s books Start with Why and Leaders Eat Last are brilliant on the topic.

Knowing how to build and maintain rapport, how to effectively listen, be genuinely curious and communicate so that clients, potential clients, colleagues and staff feel heard and understood is key to long-term success.

Great leaders follow their gut reaction or inner knowing, no matter what others think or say about them. If they make a mistake, they pick themselves up and keep moving forward. As Winston Churchill so eloquently shared, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts.”

Clients and potential clients are now demanding that women be in the ranks of power because they have seen how their presence and perspective positively impacts discussions, solutions and outcomes for them.

Women lawyers who are not proactively reaching for leadership opportunities do so for a variety of reasons:

  • Recognition that most or all of the firm’s role models are male
  • Recognition that advancement potential for women has been historically limited
  • Recognition that women have been judged harshly for asserting themselves & being ambitious

If law firms and legal departments want more women lawyers to be on their most influential committees and become partners, senior partners and managing partners, they must provide a lot more than generic training programs.

Law firms and legal departments need to provide ongoing opportunities for women to develop into leaders through mentorship or sponsorship and executive leadership coaching support.

They need to identify and develop the unique strengths of women lawyers, not encourage them conform to the status quo. Executive leadership coaching is one of the fastest and more effective means of achieving gender diversity in firm leadership.

By giving women lawyers the opportunity and ongoing support to become leaders, bringing their unique talents, strengths and abilities to everyone within their sphere of influence:

  • Clients Benefit – more come, stay and refer new business because they are happy with the service and results
  • Owners/Shareholders and Employees Benefit – greater rapport and harmony among partners, associates and staff
  • The Firm/Company Benefits – greater job retention and productivity among successful women and men lawyers alike

It's not that women lawyers are better than their male counterparts, or vice versa.  It's about acknowledging and utilizing the strengths of women and men alike without putting either into a box of being a true leader looks like.

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