By Claire E. Parsons • February 12, 2018•Ms. JD, Writers in Residence, Careers, Firms and the Private Sector, Issues, Mentoring and Networking
Today is Galentine’s Day, a completely made up holiday popularized by a TV show, Parks and Recreation, that hasn’t aired in years. Unlike Valentine’s Day, this “holiday” is intended to honor female friendships rather than romantic relationships. To say the least, the episode which featured this holiday and the character who invented it, Leslie Knope, was memorable. As Malcolm Gladwell tells us, a “sticky” message from an extraordinary communicator can carry an idea far and wide. Yet, I don’t think that the show or Leslie Knope are the only reasons that Galentine’s Day caught on. The real reason that women, myself included, celebrate Galentine’s Day is because female friendships are incredibly important. In fact, I would go so far as to say that my female friendships helped me make partner.
There is a lot of speculation about why so many women and people of color leave the legal profession. I often see these discussions focusing on studies, rather than facts on the ground. While I don’t discount the value of research, paying attention to our lived experiences is important too. Having made equity partner last year, and having gotten opportunities to handle my own cases, try my own trials, and speak and write on my own, I believe that my first ten years of practice have been successful. But, even with all of those benefits, law practice is just hard. Litigation wears you down, so you must have something to build you back up. I made it to where I am because I had a community of supporters made up of several other female lawyers who helped me build my practice.
In truth, I have had friendships with female lawyers my entire life. Both of my parents are attorneys; my mother managed a busy solo practice in domestic relations. Because she was a working mom in the 1980’s when only a handful of female lawyers practiced in our region, I hear a bit of mom guilt come every now and then. Nevertheless, I don’t think my mom could have been a better role model for me. She often told me war stories of how she overcame dilemmas in her own practice and she still answers questions when I have them. More fundamentally, she demonstrated as I grew up how a family, headed by two busy professionals, made it work when they had kids at home. This was absolutely necessary to give me faith as I tried to learn to balance a law practice with a growing family. Without her support, I would struggle to accomplish the most basic aspects of my job, let alone the extras, like happy hours and networking, that are critical to growing a practice.
Though I followed my parents’ footsteps to law school, I wouldn’t have gotten through the stress-filled three years without my best friend, Robyn. She was my study mate, moot court partner, and grammar guru as we wrote our notes for law review. She always had fun, was optimistic even when things looked bleak, and she showed me that one person could balance intelligence, cold analysis, passion, and heart. Robyn never shied away from an argument, but still had a knack for getting people on her side because she always treated everybody like they were on her side. We now practice in different cities and on opposite sides of the “v,” but I love catching up with her because she reminds me that really caring about your clients is a practice advantage.
When I started practicing, I didn’t have many options within my firm for female mentors because there was only one female equity partner. Regardless, my now law partner, Mary Ann, was the best mentor I could have had. Though she was busy managing her own practice and administrative matters within the firm, she has been a friend, mentor, sponsor, and coach to me. She demonstrated on a daily basis that achieving partnership was a possibility for me, and she gave me advice to help me achieve it myself, such as encouraging me to write and speak as much as I could to establish my expertise. When I litigated cases with her, I got to see how a female lawyer could be commanding, ferocious in cross-examination, and aggressive but also compassionate, balanced, and humane in dealing with clients, opposing counsel, and parties. The most important thing she ever did for me, though, was to let me do the opening statement, or question the witness, rather than just always writing the memo or the brief. As a still new lawyer, those experiences were invaluable and it made all the difference to see someone like me showing me how I could do it too.
As my practice advanced, I also developed a close circle of women lawyers on my level. In the first few months after I returned to work from having had my first child, I read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. I liked a lot of what she had to say, but the thing that stood out to me the most was her call for women to form “circles” to promote and support each other through their careers. No circles for lawyers existed in my area, but I used my role as the exiting Chair of the Women Lawyers Section to start one with other female attorneys from my local bar association.
These meetings were informal—but invaluable—to me. We always had food, sometimes had mimosas, but usually talked about what we were facing that month. Though these meetings were essentially hanging out, I see them now as great investments in my career because they allowed me to think through career obstacles with other women on my level who were experiencing the same thing. Every member of my circle is not only still practicing, though most of us have growing families, all of us have moved our careers forward. More importantly, I still feel like the women in my circle are on my team, and I love supporting and promoting them. In return, I often contact members of my circle when I need help or want to discuss an idea and never fail to get great feedback from them.
In short, female friendships and role models have been a defining feature of my practice. They have helped me deal with rotten court appearances, shifty witnesses, and rude comments from opposing counsel. They have helped me figure out how to work better with senior partners and how to make my family life and career work together. Some reading this may think this is not surprising at all and wonder why I have devoted a blog post to the subject. After all, I have shared only that a community of support was critical to the success I have experienced in my practice.
But that leads me back to Malcolm Gladwell, who showed us in Outliers that success is often a product of the opportunities we get, rather than innate talent or goodness. That premise is borne out in my own experience. Without disclaiming my own hard work or willingness to capitalize on opportunities, I know that my success is directly proportional to the many chances I have been given, including having had access to a community of supporters. When the legal profession thinks about diversity, I hope we consider options to make sure all attorneys have these same opportunities. The brunt of that burden is rightfully on the shoulders of law firm management, like me, who should take on the task of lifting while we climb. In my view, part of that burden includes ensuring that all young attorneys have a community of supporters, including some supporters who look like them.
With that said, to the young attorneys out there who may be reading this, you don’t have to wait for opportunities. The legal profession has its flaws but it also has its wonders, and one of those is that relationships are critical to success in law practice. For women who want to make law practice a career, relationships should be a priority, especially with other female lawyers. Therefore, I am celebrating Galentine’s Day tonight with some lady lawyer friends of mine, and I hope you are too.