Ms.JD in Toronto: The Road to Independence

This is the first in Ms.JD's series "Ms.JD in Toronto" covering issues related to women and gender at the ABA's 2011 Annual Meeting in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 

“There’s nothing like the thought of having to eat cat tuna that will incentivize you to perfect your marketing.” – Roberta Liebenberg, Chair of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession.

Have you ever considered starting your own firm? Whether you want a work environment that better reflects your own values or you just want the ability to govern your own work load, most women have at least considered running their own business. According to the ABA’s Commission on Women in the Profession’s latest book, The Road to Independence: Women’s Journey’s to Starting Their Own Law Firms, there are a few things you should know first. 101 things to be exact. The book features letters from 101 female lawyers who took the courageous step to start their own law firm.

Amanda Green Alexander, Julie Fershtman, Georgialee Lang, Roberta Liebenberg, Karen Lockwood participated in a panel moderated by Marsha Simms which had the following advice for female attorneys who are considering starting their own firms:

1. Don’t believe the idea that women stepped out on their own because they “couldn’t cut it” in traditional law firms.

According to Editor Karen Lockwood, the book makes one thing clear: The conception that women start their own firms because they can’t cut it in large traditional firms simply is not true. The Road to Independence features stories from over 100 women, none of whom left a firm simply because the work was too hard. “Every woman made her decisions based on her own desires, needs, powers, and experience,” Karen clarified. In fact, most the women on the panel had successful law firm careers prior to going out on their own. Further, most left their posts on good terms and even had old firms refer business to them. For most the women on the panel , the decision to start their own firm was about being able to be selective about what kind of work they took on, working an environment that was more cooperative, or having more agency in deciding the future of her practice.

2.     Leverage the skills you already have.

Another myth addressed by the panel was the concept that women are not well suited for starting their own firms because they are not risk seekers.  Speakers highlighted that, while starting any new endeavor has some element of risk, good research and planning was more important than luck. Having good marketing and business plans made the top of the panelists’ must lists.

Additionally, Karen Lockwood highlighted that women have traditionally been expected to balance competing obligations and ambiguities in a way that men have not always been expected to do. To generalize, women’s experiences balancing home and work obligations and expectations may actually make them uniquely qualified to start new firms.

3.      Have a team of supporters in your corner.

Finally, all of the women found it of critical importance to have a team of supporters. Whether those people are family or professional contacts (and they should be both!) all of the women stressed the importance of having people to go to. Mentors are important for getting advice on both business practices and substantive legal matter. Amanda Green Alexander also highlighted the importance of having an emotional support system for the early days that might feel a bit lonely. “You need people who will tell you that you look good,” she told the audience, “people who know you look good even when you really don’t…because they have seen you look good before.” We all know that we can do it, but know that you might need to be reminded of that a time or two.

The ABA’s Commission on Women’s The Road to Independence: 101 Women’s Journeys to Starting Their Own Law Firms is newly published and is already a best seller. For more information or to purchase the book online please visit the ABA’s Website.



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