Frank Kimball

Reflections From A Headhunter and Hiring Partner: Beware the Administrative Dungeon

Women partners are often given administrative committee assignments with little professional upside —  hiring, marketing, women’s issues and initiatives, technology, assignments, associate evaluations, training, etc. And their tenure on these committees tends to be longer than their male colleagues.  Accept these assignments with caution - and with an exit strategy.  What seems appealing and worthwhile may actually derail your career at a time when it is essential to stay on course. The firm can trumpet to the media giving women ‘leadership roles’ even though the core operating committees which run the firm remain overwhelmingly male.   

The same fate can befall talented women associates.  All associates have to shoulder some administrative responsibilities - whether it’s interviewing students or working with partners on articles or bar matters.  Avoid devoting time to administrative matters which preclude you from taking on the highest levels of responsibility possible on client matters.  Study the stars senior to you - women and men - and see where they invest their non-billable time.  Don’t let yourself be stuck in a stereotypical corner.  

Study the roster of administrative committee assignments in your firm.  You may find that a disproportionate number are given to women or minority partners.  Often these committees are far larger than necessary - which permits the firm to report a picture of diversity that bears no relationship to the true internal distribution of power. 

There are still senior partners whose reflex is to invite you to run the firm golf outing, prom, or retreat.  Some men believe this is “women’s work.”  You may even be told “you do it so well.” Consider declining the honor. In the 50-100 hours it takes you to organize an event - you could have been doing an array of things far more important to developing your career. Trust me - few of your male colleagues would take an assignment like this.  They’d find a politic way to say “no.” And, in fairness, they are not likely even to be asked to become an overpaid event planner. 

Study the career paths of lawyers 10-15 years senior to you and understand how they negotiated the shoals of committees and administrative responsibilities.  They may have had a guardian angel who made certain they were not put on the sidelines.  Or they may have figured it out on their own. Your male colleagues may well have their eye on the prize of managing client relationships or sitting on the committees that really count in law firms — those which decide policy, compensation and control of client relationships.   

Long-term survival in the 21st century law firm will depend on your ability to control, originate, and develop client relationships which produce substantial revenue. If you take on administrative roles that make it impossible for you to develop business and take 1st chair roles on major matters for leading clients you may have placed yourself in a corner from which there is no easy escape. 

All of this presents a tough challenge for women partners.  At the same time when the demands of life are greatest, the drum beats are loudest to develop clients and establish yourself in the management of the firm.  The day is not long enough as it is - and time spent on dead end assignments is far better spent on other tasks.   

If you take a committee assignment, do it for no more than two years and identify and train your successor. It can be flattering and exciting to be asked to serve on firm committees and projects.  Don’t allow it to divert your attention from what is truly important for developing your skills, your practice, and your client base. Give me a call when you land that major client and a slot on your firm’s management committee.  When it’s time to plan the firm prom or retreat, let’s have lunch and you can let me know what junior male partner will be handling it.

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