Celebrating & Fostering Leadership: Ms. JD Looks Forward to WILL 2010 with Advice from Susan Letterman White

The ABA Commission on Women in the Profession, together with the ABA Young Lawyers Division, will be holding its fourth Women in Law Leadership Academy ( WILL Academy ) on April 29-30, 2010, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania at the Loews Philadelphia Hotel.

Sessions include:

  • Attributes of a Leader
  • Navigating to Partnership, Rainmaking and Succession Planning
  • Best Practices and Advice From General Counsel
  • Advice From the Bench
  • Negotiation Skills for Lawyers
  • Developing Your Personal Strategic Plan
  • Alternatives to Law Firm Practice
  • Restructuring Law Firms in a Down Market: Alternative Models and Work/Life Flexibility as Part of the Solution

In anticipation of this fantastic event Ms. JD will be featuring a series of posts on leadership skills from Susan Letterman White. To get us started here's Susan's assessment of what constitutes leadership skills in today's economy:

Successful leadership of law firms in law departments, legal organizations, and law schools is different now than even 10 years ago because we’ve experienced significant job loss, movement from lockstep to merit-based compensation, and changes in law school curricula, use of technology, family dynamics, and the lawyer-client relationship. It takes a different perspective, set of skills, and leadership model. It requires a greater focus on relationships and innovation.

I believe that women lawyers have an inherent advantage because of the stereotypes they and others hold about their perspectives and skills. Yes, I said, stereotypes and, yes, I know that traditionally stereotyping has been the enemy. But, stick with me here and hold your judgment until you read to the end, please. In the rest of this article, I’m going to tell you what those stereotypes are and why they make a positive difference in the ability of women lawyer to lead and be embraced as leaders. But, first, I need to explain the connection between the transformative pressures on our profession listed in the first sentence and the need for new performance and leadership models that favor women lawyers.

An emerging leadership model for systems undergoing transformative changes, like those that we are seeing in the legal industry, is that of the builder-leader (Haque, U. retrieved January 20, 2010, from Building, as contrasted with managing or leading, is about creating better (read more profitable and with positive advantages for all people affected) systems, organizations, relationships, and processes for today and tomorrow. It is about constructing sustainable goals that consider the impact on the larger environment. Constructivism, relationships, and sustainability are additions to older performance and leadership models.

The builder-leader needs more than an ability to influence others and navigate the political waters of an organization - the traditional skills for a manager or leader. These skills will not help the builder to envision sustainable outcomes or to develop and implement the type of strategic plans necessary to realize an innovative vision. Imagine a vision that leverages a deeper (lawyers knows as much about client’s business as client) or shallower (lawyer barely touches client) relationship between lawyer and client. Clients want relationships that are more collaborative. They want to know how their lawyers will help them accomplish their business goals. ( This requires a deeper relationship than the traditional expert model of delivering the legal services requested by the client. The additional skills, which will make a difference, are those that enable the builder to construct better relationships and innovate. They include listening, strategic communication, and learning. Is it possible that women have an inherent advantage? Perhaps. Here’s my argument.

Women have an inherent advantage because of the stereotypic beliefs that women possess greater skills in listening, building relationships, and creativity. Stereotypes are unconscious biases and if there is a prevailing bias that women are more likely to be skilled in these areas than men, then that cultural belief has the potential to tip the balance in favor of women leaders. Dan Ariely, in Predictably Irrational explained, “[r]esearch on stereotypes shows not only that we react differently when we have a stereotype of a certain group of people, but also that stereotyped people themselves react differently when they are aware of the label that they are forced to wear (in psychological parlance, they are ‘primed’ with this label).” We tend to instinctively react as if the stereotype were true. If a majority of people in a particular system are primed to believe that women are better at listening, building relationships, and creativity, then women possess an inherent advantage in builder-leading in that system. Let’s take a closer look at the principles of the manager-leader and those of a builder-leader.

Comparison of Leadership Principles in Manager-Leader vs. Builder-Leader

Relationship-Building Skills

The focus on everyone affected by the process that generates the produce or service sold to the client requires better relationships with clients, co-workers, colleagues, and vendors. Relationships, which are defined by shared knowledge, begin with listening to, empathizing with, and understanding diverse others the roles they play in the entire set of transactions involved. The impact of decisions on these relationships matters and statistically more women tend to evaluate choices with a consideration of how a decision will impact relationships, while more men tend to consider the purely logical analytics. The Myers Briggs Type Indicator® is a psychological test that measures perception and decision-making preferences. The “Feeling” versus “Thinking” dichotomy measures decision-making preferences. Some people prefer to use a purely logical, analytical approach to making decision. These people are labeled “Thinkers.” Others prefer to consider the impact a decision will have on the relationships involved. These people are labeled “Feelers” and 2/3 of women are Feelers. Here’s another related and supporting statistic. According to a Pew Research Center Survey (, 80% of Americans believe that women are more compassionate than men. Compassion is a close relative to empathy. Empathy is key to building deeper relationships. What about building better working relationships?

Creativity and Innovation

The types of relationships that lead to innovation are more collaborative. Are women, stereotypically, more collaborative and men more combative? What about learning from mistakes, creativity and innovation? Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School says that “[p]erformance is increasingly determined by … intelligent experimentation, ingenuity, interpersonal skills, resilience in the face of adversity” ( This sounds like a need for experimentation, collaborative relationships, and creativity to me. The Pew Survey also showed that 62% of Americans think that women are more creative than men. Creativity is what makes it possible to see an obstacle as an opportunity or to solve the complexity problems that plague law firms today (

So, what do you believe? In terms of raw talent, I believe that women have an inherent advantage for the type of builder-leadership that is needed right here, right now. I believe this because there is sufficient evidence for it. I also believe it because the more people who believe it, the more advantageous it is for every woman attorney, who aspires to leadership roles in her firm, department or organization. I suggest that you embrace this belief, too. It is the positive power of stereotypes.

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