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Why More of Your Women Lawyers Aren’t Leaders
By Ellen Ostrow –
People in law firms and legal departments keep telling me that they wish they had more women lawyers in leadership but they can’t find enough interested women. When I ask them what they are doing to develop the talent of their women, they tout their training programs: “We have four sessions of leadership training and our women lawyers love it.”
Leadership training programs are all the rage these days, but the fact is that the outcome data are poor. The problem with training is that, by definition, it provides generalized concepts about leadership, prescribes behavior independent of context, and standardizes to a norm that is unrelated to the unique characteristics and strengths of the individual.
Furthermore, leadership consists of a constellation of behaviors. If these behaviors are not already in the individual’s skill repertoire, or if there are internalized or systemic obstacles to their expression, the likelihood that the individual will develop and utilize these skills is remote. Who would expect someone to become a competent tennis player after watching four lectures and demonstrations? Is leadership less complex than tennis?
Behavior is developed through trial and error. People need to practice new behaviors in different contexts in order to discover what is truly effective in each particular situation. No training program can provide this.
Perhaps even more importantly, for women to become effective leaders, they must navigate what psychologist Alice Eagly calls a “labyrinth.” The normative standard for leadership is male. Just think about adjectives typically ascribed to leaders: strong, dominant, ambitious, and decisive. Social science clearly demonstrates that not only are women not expected to have these traits, but that they are also punished when they demonstrate them.
In my 16 years coaching women to advance in the profession, I have rarely encountered a talented woman attorney who simply demurred at the thought of becoming a leader. Rather, my clients often believe that their strengths – the ability to develop strong relationships, to broker compromise, to develop others, and to be compassionate and attuned – were not valued in their workplaces nor were they viewed as indicators of leadership potential. These women, and many of the men attorneys in their firms, share these assumptions despite overwhelming evidence that these are essential leadership behaviors which significantly improve organizational profitability.
If the women lawyers in your firm are not proactively reaching for leadership opportunities, perhaps it is because all or most of the models they see are male. Or it may be that they expect to be judged harshly if they assert themselves or seem ambitious. Possibly they see so few women in the current leadership ranks that they view their advancement potential as limited.
If law firms and legal departments really want to have more women on their most powerful leadership committees, they need to do more than provide check-the-box-training. These programs are fine for introducing women to ideas about leadership. But committed firms cannot stop there.
An organization truly determined to advancing women lawyers into the highest ranks of leadership will provide opportunities for them to develop into leaders. This requires mentoring, sponsorship, and access to leadership opportunities that include coaching support. No one gets it right on the first try. But women know they are being watched through a magnifying glass.
Leadership development is contextual. It focuses on identifying and developing the unique strengths of individuals, not helping them to conform to the status quo. Whether coaching is provided by a sponsor, an internal coach or an outside consultant, it is necessary in order to achieve gender diversity in firm leadership.
Invest in developing talented women into leaders; you’ll see the return on your investment many times over.
Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D., PCC, CMC is an executive coach and psychologist and Founding Principal of Lawyers Life Coach LLC. Since starting her firm in 1998, Ellen has coached many hundreds of attorneys throughout the world at all levels of experience and seniority in law firms, corporate legal departments, government, not-for-profits and the judiciary. She provides coaching to attorneys in areas related to leadership development and effectiveness, career planning and advancement, communication and emotional intelligence. She also consults with law firms and corporate legal departments on strategies for retaining women and diverse attorneys.
Ellen is particularly known for her expertise on the challenges faced by women in the profession and has been invited to address numerous audiences – including the Department of Justice Canada, the Center for Legal Inclusiveness, Harvard Law School’s Women’s Leadership Summit, the Center for Women in the Law’s Power Summit, the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law’s Women Leadership & Equality Program and bar and women attorney’s groups on the national and local level throughout the US and Europe – on strategies for advancing women attorneys. Ellen has also been selected as the exclusive Women In Law Empowerment Forum (WILEF)-endorsed leadership development coach.
A frequent contributing writer for print and electronic legal media, Ellen’s articles have been published in the New York Law Journal Magazine, Perspectives, The Women Advocate, GP Small/Solo, Trial Magazine, Lawyers Weekly USA and many other prominent legal publications. The New York Times, the Washington Post, US News & World Report, the Legal Times, Of Counsel and the Careerist have quoted Ellen and her email newsletter, Beyond the Billable Hour, has been reprinted by more than 30 print and electronic publications and translated into multiple languages.
Ellen is Co-Chair of the Board of the ThirdPath Institute, Co-Chair of the Women’s Bar Association of DC’s Career Committee, a member of the ABA Commission on Women’s Grit Project and the Center for Women in the Law’s Consortium. She has served on the District of Columbia Bar Association’s Lawyers’ Assistance Program Advisory Board (2007-2013), the 2011 Women’s Power Summit on Law & Leadership Advisory Board, The ABA Commission on Women in the Profession’s Women in Law Leadership Academy faculty (2004-2006) the ABA Women Rainmakers’ Board (2012-2013), and the UC Hastings Leadership Academy for Women Lawyers faculty (2014.)
Ellen received her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Rochester and her coach training from the MentorCoach ™ program, for which she has also taught. She served on the faculties of three universities before starting her independent practice.