Career Hack: Valuable Advice for Women in Law

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“When I was in your spot in law school, the issue of being a woman in law was nonexistent for me…. It never occurred to me that the ratio wouldn’t stay the same as I moved up in practice,” Shannon Stevenson remarked to a group of students at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.

“Now, I’ve watched female friend after female friend drop out of the field.”

The nearly all-female student audience was there to glean career advice and learn how to avoid the fate that seems to befall many women in the field of law as time ticks on. As a partner at Davis Graham & Stubbs and President of the Colorado Women’s Bar Association (CWBA), Stevenson is certainly qualified to guide them.

Joining Stevenson in offering experience and advice was Melanie Corrin, a senior attorney at Joseph Law Firm P.C., and Kyle Velte, an attorney and Lecturer at Denver Law. All three women are mothers and active in the CWBA community, and were eager to share with future female lawyers how to find the elusive work–life balance.

While discussing topics such as pay equity, leadership, networking and professionalism, they examined the “tightrope” problem, in which women in law face the issue of being too girly and meek on one side or too bossy and cold on the other. Finding the ideal personal balance is important when it comes to getting what you want and advancing your career.

For instance, women in law currently make $66,000 less per year than men in the same position. There’s a disconnect when it comes to why this is. One idea is that women don’t ask—or when they do, they come off as being too demanding. There’s also the question of whether women know what they’re worth. Compensation transparency is one issue that works to address this. Keeping office salaries a secret has proven to be harmful for workplace morale. An Inc. article, for example, recently reported that “pay transparency worked significantly better than pay secrecy at keeping employees engaged.”

As the discussion on women in the law continued, questions began rolling in from the audience. One student asked about the job-search journey: “Sometimes, as a law student, I feel awkward networking because it’s so obvious that I want a job. Do older attorneys expect this?”

Velte responded that she prefers to think of networking as “relationship building.” She recommends a softer approach to meeting people and cultivating relationships—viewing it as research.

“The first time you go on a date, you aren’t going to ask to get married,” Velte explains. “Similarly, you aren’t asking for a job the first time you meet someone, but gathering information and getting to know different companies and people.”

Throughout the conversation, Stevenson, Corrin and Velte offered many pearls of wisdom for law students and young lawyers—male or female. Take heed of the following advice as you forge your own path to success in the legal field.

  • Pay your dues. First impressions are so important because once you have a reputation—good or bad— it’s difficult to lose it. Ensure yours is good by consistently showing a can-do attitude and producing high-quality work from the start.
  • Get involved. Take every opportunity given to you. There are copious ways in which to get your face out there! Join organizations like the Colorado Bar Association and the Colorado Women’s Bar Association and attend events they host.
  • Find a mentor or sponsor. You want someone you can trust, who will offer advice and look out for you. If this person is at your firm, he or she will put political and social capital on the line for you (once you’ve earned it).
  • Ask for you what you need. As Stevenson said: “Earn it, then ask for it.” Know your worth, and be confident in your abilities. If you want a raise, demonstrate value and prove that you understand the economics of a firm.
  • Instead of “networking,” think of it as “relationship building.” It doesn’t have to be a “great big scary thing.” Relationship building can be attending a CLE, joining a committee, going to a happy hour, or just finding attorney friends with similar interests. Corrin explained that: “The best place to sell yourself is where you feel comfortable.”
  • Take advantage of all advice offered to you. Ask questions and seek out others with different ideas. Make the most of those with more experience who are willing to guide you along and be a second pair of eyes on your work.
  • Don’t go through recruiters for a job. Instead, find someone at a firm you’re interested in and work to build a relationship with that person. It’s valuable to have someone fighting for you.
  • Shift your expectations from perfect to “good enough.” Everyone starts out thinking they can do it all. It’s vital to know what you can move to the bottom of your to-do list and what you need to knock out of the park (such as your first year at a new job). Cultivate a hard work ethic, but be okay with stepping back sometimes.
  • Have a sense of humor. This is necessary for all facets of life. When you’re working this hard, you can’t forget to take time to laugh!

 

By Courtney Gibb, the communications and marketing specialist for the CBA and DBA and editor of The Docket.

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