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Interview with Ms. JD Fellowship Mentor, Alan Bryan

Alan Bryan is Senior Associate General Counsel for Walmart Inc., an adjunct professor at the University of Arkansas School of Law, and a certified professional coach.  Mr. Bryan is a leader in his company, community, and countless professional organizations, including Ms. JD.  In 2017, Mr. Bryan received Ms. JD’s “The Incredible Men” (TIM) Award as a champion for women’s advancement in the legal profession and he has been an active mentor for Ms. JD Fellows for several years.  I have had the pleasure to get to know him and to grow professionally and personally from his mentorship, and wanted to share with the rest of the organization some insight into Mr. Bryan’s perspective on gender equality in the legal profession; balancing career, family, and organizational involvement; and seeking positive mentorship.

Q: How did you first get involved with Ms. JD?

A: I first heard of Ms. JD through my work with the National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL).  Ms. JD and NAWL have aligned values and often co-brand; I believe I learned about Ms. JD through a NAWL publication.  It was then that I learned about and followed the work of then-Ms. JD president Katie Larkin-Wong and I started following the work of the organization.  Additionally, I began reading the blog and following the “writers in residence,” as well as looking into the programming.  The more I learned about Ms. JD, the more interested I became.

I realized that Ms. JD had a great program and was filling a gap in legal pipeline development by focusing on women law students and young women lawyers.  I have always thought we needed more mentoring and development programs for younger attorneys.  In fact, my belief in mentoring led me to become a certified professional coach with an emphasis on lawyers and executives.

When I was a young attorney, my firm had nothing.  You were rarely given any feedback, and no one bothered with formal mentoring.  It is crucial that older attorneys take the time to develop the next generation.  Lawyers should be leaders and leaders should mentor and sponsor others. It is assurance that our noble profession will be left in good hands.  Moreover, it is personally fulfilling to help and guide others.  Ms. JD embodies these principles.

Q: What drew you to supporting women in the legal profession?

A: I grew up surrounded by intelligent, creative, and strong women.  None of them were in the legal field, but if they faced inequity in their individual professions, I would not hesitate to stand for their equal treatment. There is not one of them that I would allow to be marginalized if I could help it.  Entering the legal profession, I found the same type of women and I was lucky to have women lawyers as trusted colleagues and respected mentors.  But, I was naïve enough to think that all of them were treated equally, or the same as male counterparts.  Observing and listening delivered me from that naivete.

Wanting to learn more, I started asking women lawyers about their experiences.  When I was finally able to attend meetings and conferences about these issues, I discovered -- though I did not know its name at the time -- the proverbial echo chamber.  There were no men.  I have always felt compelled to lead; plus, I believe leaders should show up and speak up where others will not.  So, I decided to take action.  I decided to start speaking publicly on these issues with particular interest on getting other men to discuss the same.  This stems from the knowledge that very few male attorneys have or are willing to do the same.  If not us, then who?  If not now, then when?  Those are questions I have posited to broad audiences to quell the voices of hesitation that often dwell in the hearts and minds of men.  I am just as comfortable standing alone and asking those questions to crowds of many as I am to rooms of a few.

Furthermore, by actively seeking out diverse opinions and ensuring I authentically include others beyond those to which I personally relate, I have achieved greater success in my endeavors.  This effort guides my leadership philosophy, executive coaching philosophy, and even my day-to-day job duties.  It further directs me as an ambassador for and in activities supporting diversity and inclusion in the legal profession.

Many of those activities are detailed elsewhere.  I do not participate in them solely to demonstrate a commitment, but to fulfill my personal duty to speak where others will not.  In sum, I attempt to demonstrate my commitment to diversity and inclusion in my everyday interactions, as well as through the fearlessness and grit of challenging a status quo in need of change, even when doing so alone.

Our collective success as lawyers in attempting to create a more just world requires that we first find justice among our own ranks.  To achieve this, it is imperative that men recognize the need for gender parity at all levels of our profession.  It is also the only way to utilize our country’s legal talent in the most optimal way possible.

Q: Have you seen any improvement in gender equality in the legal profession since you first began?

A: Yes, but the progress has been slow.  In fact, we are still losing far too many women lawyers from our ranks.  If we do not curb this professional attrition, we will not achieve our potential as a profession.  A few years ago, The American Lawyer magazine looked across women lawyers in firms and released a surprising statistic.  At about 30 years old, women constitute around 46% of lawyers, at 40, its around 41%, and at 50 years old, the number falls off the cliff and women lawyers represent 27% of lawyers in firms.  That one survey really says all you need to know.  Though some conditions have changed, though explicit bias is perhaps less common, and though there is a bit more transparency around promotion and compensation, women continue to leave the profession.  Why?  For all the same reasons as before: implicit bias, unequal treatment, internal struggles over compensation or business development or promotion, and many others.

Despite certain progress, there is much work to be done.  Most importantly, we need to keep talking about these issues.  It is not simply to advance women but for the betterment of the profession as a whole.

Q: What can people to promote equality in the legal profession? Are there different ways people can make an impact depending on if they are:

Law students

A: There is much I wish I could tell my 24-year-old self about what I should do while in and before I got out of law school.  Expand your skill set; don’t just sign up -- get involved; don’t stop your learning at only case precedent and procedure; learn business skills; increase your technical acumen; all that, among other things.  That would have been more productive than my extracurricular activities in law school.

Two other pieces of advice that happen to overlap here are networking more often and discovering my own emotional intelligence earlier.  Through networking we learn more about diverse ideas and skill sets, and we naturally become more inclusive of others.  Through self-discovery of our emotional intelligence, we can develop better relationships with that expansive network.  Neither of these are a “silver bullet” for promoting equality, but they both lead to better understanding of others, and that is impactful.

Young attorneys

A: I often say that one of my biggest mistakes as a young lawyer was believing that if I kept my head down and worked hard, I would get ahead.  That was short-sighted.  Working hard on your matters is only one component of becoming a well-rounded lawyer.  If you never leave the office, you miss the chance to broaden your horizons by joining different bar organizations, volunteering for your favorite charity, or getting involved in your community, to name a few.  While these do take time away from “billable hours” and income-producing work, these activities make you a more holistic attorney and professional. Activities and involvement outside the office also serve as business development opportunities.

More than that, these activities help an attorney develop a broader worldview as they create occasions to meet new people.  Much like the networking I described, having a greater perspective from engaging in a multitude of activities helps you to better see inequality.  Once inequality is seen, any lawyer living up to the high ideals of our legal system should feel obligated to do what he or she can to right that wrong.

Partners/senior attorneys

A: Let me start with a digression and personal opinion: we need to change the business model and culture of many law firms.  As the purchasers of legal services have increasingly more options to choose from, including alternative providers and technology, forward-thinking law firms should take note and take action.  Why mention this first?  Because re-thinking the business model, while a necessity, would also start to solve issues detrimental to the careers of women lawyers around compensation/pay equity, business development, client succession, personal and professional fulfillment, untenable culture, lack of transparency on the partnership track and so on. 

Today’s partners and senior attorneys are best suited to solve these problems for tomorrow’s lawyers.  But, the business model itself leaves less incentive for them to invest time and capital into solving problems that will have no personal ROI.  I’m painting with a broad stroke here, because this is not all law firms and not all senior lawyers, but if we are to keep the current model we need to at least address a few of these issues.

Firms can institute programs like Diversity Lab’s Mansfield Rule.  Adopting that program means a firm is dedicated to truly considering a diverse or female attorney in at least 30% of candidates for open leadership and governance roles for the organization.  It has proven (first in its model, the NFL’s Rooney Rule) to increase the number of diverse candidates who rise to leadership.  More women in leadership positions will lead to better understanding of the issues women lawyers face entering the profession and beyond.  They can also see to it that the firm becomes more data driven, tracking the assignments, hours, and trajectory for success of all young lawyers.  Realization and action on data can prevent a legal career from derailing and keep women lawyers moving forward.

Partners and senior attorneys can do much more on a personal level.  They can be mentors and sponsors, ensuring women get helpful advice and constructive feedback.  They can make sure women are sitting first chair at trial, leading big investigations, leading big deals, and most importantly, seeing that those same women get the credit for it.

Senior attorneys can also help us change the value proposition.  Lawyers should not be valued as heavily based on the billable hour and/or revenue production.  The value of a lawyer -- any lawyer -- is much more.  Value can be established in that person’s relationships built over time, in the experiences in and outside the profession, the knowledge he/she has of a client, and even the “trust factor” built into a stable, long-running relationship. 

Lest you think I put full responsibility on law firms, “senior attorneys” could mean those within corporate or client legal departments.  These individuals hold the “power of the purse” and with it a tremendous sway on what they want to see out of their external (and internal) legal teams.  Senior attorneys within organizations that are the purchasers of legal services likewise should be cognizant of where legal dollars are going (also by utilizing data), who is leading their matters, and even how financial credit for their work is distributed. 

Mainly, senior attorneys must lead by example.  As the saying goes, to those who much is given, much is expected.  They should hold themselves and their peers accountable for this standard. Partners and senior attorneys should aspire to fulfill this promise by inspiring all lawyers to maximize their potential and realize remarkable results for themselves, their organizations, and the profession.

Men

A: I have spoken many times about what men can do and I repeat roughly the same thing each time.  My humble ideas are very simple.  Men can listen, observe, and act.  Listen for the derogatory comments.  Look out for unequal treatment or inequality.  Finally, when you recognize these things, speak up and act on it.  These action items include having the courage to ask questions outside one’s comfort zone, working against gender stereotypes, and educating yourself on the meaning and value of diverse and inclusive organizations.  Too often men see a “zero sum” game or are too afraid or too disinterested to do anything.  Assuring greater longevity and success for women lawyers in your organization isn’t about putting women over men; it is about creating greater success for the whole organization.

To truly be leaders, it is men, often in positions of authority and influence, who have a responsibility to act toward gender parity in the profession. It starts by speaking on these issues, by being mentors, by being sponsors, by creating those visible female role models through targeted and purposeful succession planning. These actions, and more, are where men can show leadership. 

Men not only hold the majority of current leadership positions, they are also a large part of the profession.  It is crucial for men to understand that our collective failure to achieve greater gender diversity hurts the perception and performance of our profession. Women don’t need male saviors.  They need allies.  They need men to listen, to understand the challenges, and then to act on them. 

Women

A: Obviously, it is hard for me to truly empathize here.  In my opinion, however, women need to engage, even in the most difficult of circumstances.  When we engage we become more invested, more interested, and hopefully more accepted. Even when times are tough, have optimism and enthusiasm.  When the daggers are pointed at you, as is often true of women lawyers at various points in the career, it’s not time to run.  It’s time to engage.  It’s also time to persevere.

Persevere in the mission to recruit, retain, and advance women in the law.  Persevere with courage, humility, diligence, grace, and passion.  Persevere with strength of character, sincerity of conviction, and utmost confidence.  Do these things even through the lowest points in your career.

It is important because you have value and you bring something unique to your workplace and your profession.  Never forget it.  Believe in yourself even when you think no one else does.  In fact, know that there are many who believe in you.  There are many women in the legal profession who, in their own ways, advocate and act for the important issues of recruitment, retention and advancement of women in the law.  They do so by their sponsorship, mentorship, guidance, and other support of women in the profession, even when their efforts are small or go unrecognized. They came before or came with you, and they believe in you.  Their engagement and willingness to support and help advance women lawyers make you better; but, your own small acts of perseverance actually make us all better.

The cascade of attrition described in the American Lawyer survey will end when more women engage, persevere, and remain.  We need it for the betterment and future of the profession.

Q: In addition to your career and Ms. JD, you are actively involved in many professional organizations, including the American Bar Association, National Association of Women Lawyers, Diversity and Flexibility Alliance, and National Association of Minority & Women Owned Law Firms, just to name a few.  What advice do you have for those who want to stay involved in Ms. JD and other professional organizations regarding balancing time between making meaningful contributions to these organizations, having a successful career, and having a family/home life?

A: This is the challenge of many professionals, and I believe it is more so for attorneys.  That is particularly so for attorneys whose value is measured by the billable hour.  Even without measuring value by time spent and before considering all the other activities in which they should or must participate, attorneys have a lot to do in their “day job.”  Extra activities beyond it include networking, business development, and others.  It also necessarily includes those activities and organizations in which you find a passion, which will sometimes overlap with the networking and business development opportunities.  That is a good way to get more bang for your buck -- combine networking/business development with your passions for other organizations.  If you have a burning desire to serve on your local arts council or the hospital board, ask yourself where that overlaps with possible clients.

All of these activities take time.  Time is our most precious gift in life because it is one of the few things in life that is definitively finite.  It is therefore imperative to carve out time for your family, your friends, and yourself, even when you think you have no time left.  That means making the time to attend your child’s basketball game, time for socializing (and not just with your co-workers), or taking time to mediate and recharge in whatever way you do it.  For me, these are the most important parts of my schedule, particularly being there for my family.  It takes some creative time management, but I try to wake up early to work on things or catch up after putting my kids in bed.  I try to make the most of my commute by taking calls over the speaker phone or by planning out my day. 

All of it is an effort at efficiency.  While it may sound impersonal, I also track everything personal, like events at my kids’ schools or a social event with friends, on my calendar.  It sounds simple, but much like writing down your goals helps you visualize and achieve them, making sure you can mange your calendar and balance personal and professional commitments depends on getting it all on the calendar.  Getting commitments and obligations “down on paper” helps you find balance, at least in your time management.

Q: You have been actively involved in mentorship programs, including mentoring Ms. JD fellows, the NAWL mentorship program, and NAMWOLF’s Emerging Leader Mentor Initiative.  You are also a certified professional coach who works largely with lawyers to help them achieve success. What advice do you have for law students or young attorneys seeking a mentor? Where should they begin looking and what qualities should they look for in a good mentor? How can they create and maintain a successful mentor/mentee relationship?

A: Look all over.  Good mentors will not necessarily be those you think or even in the places you would assume, so do not limit your search for mentors to your workplace or only the places you know.  Additionally, don’t be afraid to ask, but be prepared for rejection.  You will not land every managing partner or general counsel that you ask to be your mentor.  These people, and really all lawyers (see above), have several time commitments and will sometimes not be able to be a mentor for you, but perhaps they can give you suggestions.

Also – always, always, always, make it easy on your mentor.  Unless they tell you differently: You bend to their schedule.  You set it up.  You always show up on time. You do whatever it takes to ensure you are not a chore.  After all, they are helping you out.  Most will mentor you out of the goodness of their hearts, but there is no greater payment you can give them than your respect and gratitude.

Finally, make an effort to seek out several mentors over the course of your career and make sure they are from different backgrounds.  Make sure that you have mentors of different genders, ethnicities, backgrounds, and belief systems.  I often tell young male and female lawyers to seek out mentors of the opposite sex.  In fact, my greatest mentor, who taught me how to handle myself in trial and who championed me, was a female lawyer.  The key is to find different perspectives to more fully guide you in your career and life.

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