By Celine Aka • February 22, 2017•Ms. JD, Conference, Careers, Firms and the Private Sector, Issues, Mentoring and Networking
2017 Ms. JD Sharing Her Passion Award
The following questions were formulated based on Jessica's profile.
1. Since joining your firm, Gibson Dunn, in 1995, you have been a frequent author and lecturer on gender, diversity, and leadership issues. You are currently a member of the firm's Diversity Committee, and you served on the firmwide Professional Development Committee for 13 years. When and why did you decided to speak on such topics and be involved on those Committees?
When I joined the firm in 1995, about 13 percent of equity partners at all major law firms were women. In 2005, that number had climbed to 17 percent. In 2015, it had only inched up to about 18 percent. This despite the fact that law schools had graduated men and women, and law firms had hired male and female associates, in close to equal numbers (i.e., 50 percent each) over at least that same 20-year time period. Almost all of my closest female friends had stopped practicing law in big firms over that 20-year period as well. Some left as associates, some as of counsel, one even left as an equity partner. I respect their decisions, but it makes women lawyers question whether they can do it when so many of their female friends and colleagues have decided not to.
I have been at Gibson Dunn for more than 22 years and I’m still not sure I can make it work. I love this firm – the people are great and brilliant, the culture is collegial and team-oriented, the leadership is committed to diversity and inclusion – but I never assume I will still be here the following year. It’s hard! And it was hard, for a variety of reasons, for my friends who “opted out” over the years. But I’ve seen that there are real benefits to sticking with it – beyond just the obvious financial rewards (which are substantial). The work is interesting and exciting, you meet amazing people and become very well-connected, you have opportunities to make a difference for paying and non-paying clients, and your control and flexibility increase substantially over time, though not all the time. (The ability to be “flexible about your flexibility” is essential.)
So I’ve wanted to try to help women “stay in the game” and not throw in the towel or be thrown out with the towels. I want to help them with their professional development and show them why this is a great job for women and why they should stick it out if they can. When enough of us do, we can perhaps implement some structural and attitudinal changes (relating to on-and off-ramps, for example, or flexible work schedules, and compensation/reward systems) that will make it easier for future female hires to follow in our path. In addition, just seeing more women at the top will make it easier for women lawyers to envision, and thus to follow, a similar path for themselves.
2. What do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership in the legal profession?
I’ll go with implicit biases. We all have them; men and women alike. And those unconscious attitudes and affinities certainly seem more responsible than overt discrimination for unequal access to mentoring and sponsorship, networking and business development activities, plum case assignments and informal training, and important committee and leadership development opportunities. When a man asks for opportunities, it is expected; when a woman does, it can be viewed as “pushy.” And, unfortunately, people are often not even self-conscious about their different reactions.
3. What qualities do you think are crucial for aspiring women leaders to develop?
Perseverance and resilience (a.k.a. grit) as well as a positive attitude. These are qualities that are needed just to stay in the game. You have to still be there, within the organization you seek to lead, to become a leader within that organization.
4. What book or article would you say every female law student and attorney should read?
My book on How to Become a Wildly Effective Law Firm Associate. I haven’t started writing it yet. But I also like the premise of Womenomics by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman – that women have more power than they may realize (because of the value they bring to teams and thus the bottom line) and should use it to make the workplace work for them. Firms want women to stay. Men at firms want women to stay. Women should do what it takes and request what they need to make it achievable for them to stay. They should not be like the McKinsey associates (male and female) Sheryl Sandberg talks about in Lean In, who left the firm due to burnout despite having weeks or months of unused vacation.
5. What advice would you give to young women who will soon be practicing law at big law firms?
Be excited. It’s a huge opportunity for you if you are willing to stick with it and do what it takes to make it work. The rewards outweigh the challenges. But there will be significant challenges along the way. Don’t be surprised by that and find a way to keep going. Actively seek mentors and sponsors within and outside the firm. Develop yourself as a leader and a lawyer. Seek support from your significant other, other family members, outside sources of help. Delegate non-work tasks you don’t enjoy and embrace the activities you love. Find what you love to do within the practice of law. Develop and publicize your expertise in those areas. Band with a group of female associates and support and promote one another. Do the best work you can. And don’t be afraid to ask for what you need; for many of us, that is the hardest piece of the puzzle.
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