By Noha Sidhom • March 29, 2010•Superwomen JDs and What You Can Learn From Them
Elena Kaspi is an Executive Career Coach who specializes in providing Business, Career and Leadership Coaching Programs and Workshops to lawyers and AmLaw 100 law firms throughout the United States and abroad. Elena has dedicated the last ten years of her professional life to coaching, mentoring and advising attorneys regarding leadership skills and their career development. Ms. Kaspi's full bio appears at the end of this post.
1. How has being a woman affected your career or legal education?
As a first generation Italian-American I grew up in a family of very strong, fiercely opinionated, resilient, hardworking, articulate, and funny women who saw being a woman as a strength, asset and advantage; and who always showed me the value of balancing family and hard work. Growing up, it never occurred to me that being a woman was going affect my career or career choice: the women around me taught me “work hard, love hard, laugh hard and when you are done with that…work some more”. Oh yes … and put on red lipstick and try to look good doing it all! I was the first in my family to go to college much less law school so it wasn’t until I got to college and law school that I realized that other women were culturally informed and educated to behave “lesser than” or expect "lesser than”.
My first real hurdle in my career came when I had my first child. That was when I realized that my career trajectory was going to have detours and bumps and crashes if I wanted to raise a family the way I wanted to. That was the first time that I saw the way my being a woman was “slowing my career down” from the path that I thought I wanted. It took several years, transitions, insight and dig-deep determination for me to carve out a dynamic career and still have the family I wanted.
2. What advice do you wish someone had given you when you first started practicing law?
It would have been nice if someone had taught me the nitty-gritty of what it looks like to take “career ownership” of my legal career and professional development. There is a lot of talk about “career ownership” but there is nothing like having a mentor on hand, when there is an important career choice to be made, who can stand by you, process the decision with you and really show you in real time what it means to “own” your career, the price it sometimes costs and to take responsibility for it.
I think it would have also helped to have known at the outset that law firms do quietly expect you to know how to balance your workload, create flexible boundaries, navigate political minefields and make good professional and interpersonal judgment calls. That law firms are business enterprises and that they do not see it as their mission to pave the path to career satisfaction and success. It just would have been nice for someone to have told me all that when I accepted my job offer! When I practiced law, I just assumed the firm “had a well-thought out career plan for me” and that my only job was to trust everything they were doing and simply put my head down, bill hours and say “YES” whenever possible and as often as possible. I was naive, and thought that the law firm was just another empathic link in the ever-growing umbilical cord from my childhood to college to law school to adulthood. I believed the firm would take care of me, nurture me, had a vision for me and that my only job was to “work hard” and the firm would take care of everything else. Yes…I had a very rude awakening. So over time and with much disappointment and struggle, I had to learn how to set personal and professional boundaries, articulate my own career path, and decide what I wanted from my career, seek out mentors, learn how to “say NO” and not alienate, and use my judgment in achieving what I wanted from my career path.
Finally, I also think I would have liked to understand “Law Firm-Speak.” Specifically, I would have liked to have had a heads-up, that most law firms communicate messages about your progress, disappointment and development using nonverbal language and cues. That thriving in a law firm without feeling alienated, paranoid or simply ignored, requires some understanding of nonverbal communication and behavioral dynamics and a quick course in “tea leaf reading”. As someone who thrives on constant, consistent, clear, articulate communication—understanding the subtle nuances of law firm speak was a struggle and took some time to master.
3. What do you think the legal profession can do to increase the number of senior level females?
As a therapist and executive career coach who focuses a good portion of my practice on the development and sustainability I have a lot to say about this topic. I think there are at least two key steps that the legal profession needs to take to increase the number of senior women. First, they need to make sure that women attorneys at every level are taught and encouraged to increase their professional visibility both within the firm or agency as well as in their community and network. Senior level females need to know that their careers are more than a collection of billable hours and that their visibility within their firm, network and community strengthens their ability to grow, contribute and develop professionally and personally. Secondly, we need to address the greatest point of exit for women attorneys; namely, the impact that maternity leave can have on a woman’s career. I have been fortunate to be providing maternity and flextime coaching to several law firms as part of their women’s initiative. Maternity Leave is simply a very large career transition; and as with all transitions, maternity leave simply amplifies already existing career issues and struggles. If we can address maternity leave, as simply another career transition, and in doing so identify obstacles associated with professional image management and reintegration into the workplace, women will be able to manage the career transition associated with maternity leave, with more professional tools, skill and support. We have seen an increased retention of senior female talent with a maternity coaching program in place.
4. Being a first year attorney anywhere is tough. How do you think young attorneys can really hone their skills in their first few years?
In the first few years skill building and developing a sense of competency is very important. Young attorneys can go about doing this a number of ways. First, I would recommend that young attorneys find out if their place of employment has professional “benchmarks”. Ask the HR person, the recruiting person or manager of professional development if such a thing exists. That offers a very clear articulation of “how do we expect your skills to grow?” Secondly, doing pro bono work offers an invaluable way for attorneys to get access to many of the skills that are expected of them. Everything from drafting, negotiating, interacting with clients, taking deposition etc. can be achieved through a good pro bono assignment. Finally, young attorneys need to demand effective, critical feedback from their superiors. The only way to hone skills it to know how to improve and what to avoid doing in the future. Feedback, feedback, feedback, is the real key to honing skills and improving competency.
5. Our profession is male dominated. How can young women balance being feminine and professional at the same time? I meet many women that simply act like one of the boys; I do not think that is the solution. Do you have any advice for handling social situations, outings with clients, etc.?
This is a very important topic. And this is probably where my psychotherapist/coach role comes into play. My answer to this has two parts.
First, professional image management for all attorneys, regardless of gender is something that requires thought, planning and consistent evaluation. You should anticipate that as you get older and mature that image may shift and vary at times. The important thing for all attorneys to remember is that any professional image that you are projecting that feels extreme---i.e. too manly, too femme, too aggressive, too jock, too shopaholic, too indifferent, too confident, too unsure, too deferential, too all-knowing—is not authentic and that people around you (including your clients) will know that and question you and your judgment.
Secondly, with respect to women and professional image management, acting like “one of the boys” sometimes feels forced, inauthentic and may actually backfire on you with both men & women. The operative question here in thinking about your professional image is “are you ‘ACTING ’ like one of the boys or do you genuinely enjoy and behave in ways usually associated with men? Such as if you ….smoke cigars, follow football, enjoy a good scotch, curse like a sailor, wear tailored suits, because that’s who you really are when no one is watching…then by all means, project who you are with confidence. But if you are acting in any way—eventually the dissonance between who you really are and who you are projecting creates a sense of “false self”. “False self” is what happens to our identity when we accommodate what others want, expect and demand to the point that our true selves and desires and interests are muted and dissolves. “False self” is partially what contributes to a lack of professional self confidence (which many many women professionals talk about). How can you have strong self confidence when all your “acting” has created a “false self” that makes you feels disconnected and alienated from your strengths, assets and preferences? You cannot. So, for fear of sounding too touchy/feely, women attorneys should project a professional image that resonates with who they really are, and if necessary find limited ways to engage in activities that may be required professionally either by clients or partners, with an understanding that they are “engaging” in an activity or behavior for strategic reasons, and not “ACTING” like one of them.
6. There is a perception that senior female attorneys think that they had it tough and so should you. Do you think that this sentiment is true? If so, do you think there is value in figuring things out on your own like women before you had to?
I will answer this one quickly: NO. The idea that senior women are “intentionally” and “maliciously” making things difficult for other women is a mythology meant to demonize successful women who had it much harder than we do. Demonizing women who crossed barriers in face of great challenges and dangers has a long, insidious tradition in the history of mankind and has its roots in western fiction, history, religion and mythology. That being said, here is what I think is really being identified. Senior women attorneys need support, leadership skills and confidence building activities. The behavior we sometimes see among senior women that looks intentionally “malicious” is in fact defensive and learned behavior, that can be unlearned and replaced with mentoring and collaborative skill building.
Senior women made it through a trial by fire, we all know that. Just look at the number of women partners in US firms. And yet knowing all what it may have taken to get to their position, we then want to know why their posture is seemingly one that is “alienated” “charred” “dark” and “harsh”. These were women who did it on their own; they have learned one way and one way only. Supporting them, teaching them to be mentors, coaches and leaders, showing them that leadership for women can be collaborative, and assuring them that their interest in the development of women is not compromising to their power among their male colleagues and nonthreatening to their well-earned position of authority, is the solution to this generation gap between women.
7. What advice do you have for young female attorneys looking for a mentor? Do you feel that there is added value in finding a female mentor? What should they be looking for in a mentor, and what can they do to make themselves someone you would want to mentor?
Finding mentors is an important part of professional development. There is a workshop that I run for law firms that focuses on understanding “what type of mentor” any given person may be best suited for. Specifically, in thinking about finding mentors, women should consider three things. First, a person should have multiple mentors, or people in their lives, who support their career in different ways. Some mentors are more navigators, some are connectors, some are just a safe harbor at troubled times. Determine how you want to use each of your identified mentors; no one person should serve more than 2 mentoring purposes. And figure out what that mentor’s strengths and approach them from that angle. Secondly, mentors can change their role and function during the course of a career; allow that relationship to evolve as your career evolves. Third, finding mentors means finding people in the world who you connect with. The point here is that women need to get professionally, visible and connected, so that they can meet more people, and expand their sphere of professional contacts so that they can meet mentors.
8. We all have to make sacrifices for our careers, what sacrifices have you made and which would you make again?
I have made multiple sacrifices in developing my career. My choices have, at times, taken me away from time with my children when they were little. I always worked, sometimes part-time, but mostly full time, and the biggest sacrifice I made was not having indulged more in that leisurely, timeless, quiet time that is unique to early childhood. Secondly, my career choices have entailed financial sacrifice; I went back to graduate school with little children, which cost money and time. Finally, my career choices have at times cost me personal wellness time; invariably there have been times in my career when my time for my yoga, running, exercise, reading, my dog, my girlfriends has been seriously back-burnered. Those were stressful times and I am still learning how to find time for myself when the stress convinces me that I have no time to “waste”. We all have our demons; mine happens to be learning how to put my needs first. I’ll get there…given the satisfaction I get out of working with people and helping attorneys surpass their goals and become high performers, I would make all those choices again ( but probably would have spent more time rolling around on on the floor with my children when they were little and less concerned about their schedules, naps, diet and play dates.)
9. Men still get paid more and get promoted faster. What advice do you have for young women to help them accelerate their careers?
My advice is get visible, get connected, get out of your office, meet other professionals outside the law, join networking groups, get on committees, and get more active interpersonally. The number one contributor to depression and career dissatisfaction and disappointment is ISOLATION. This doesn’t meant that the more introverted person should go to endless parties and cocktail events; it means that women should spend some time figuring out what environment they like to connect and find a way to regularly engage in that space. When women connect, they build support and business networks, that make them more likely to become rainmakers, experts or visible within their work environment- all assets that impact the bottom line.
10. What are your interests/hobbies outside of the legal practice? How important do you think those interests/hobbies have been in maintaining some work life balance?
I practice yoga, I run, I cook, I love love love fashion and couture and I read, read, read a whole lot. I am always reading about 4 or 5 books at any given moment; which makes packing for vacations kind of hectic as I always have a “book” luggage( along with my shoe luggage..which is another subject) . I considered getting the Kindle for a while; but I love the texture, depth and feel of the page, the bind, the organic simple and primitive ritual of reading. For an extravert, I am always surprised how all my hobbies are very isolative in nature. My other time is spent with my family, my dog, Primo, and with my friends. My hobbies and interests always inform my work with people. There will always be something I think about during a run, or learn by trying a posture in yoga, or some insight I get by cooking. The quiet time I cultivate feeds my brain, my soul and cultivates patience and compassion for myself and, therefore, for the people I coach.
11. What is one change you would like to see in the legal profession in the next 20 years?
In the next 20 years, I would like to see more women partners, more diverse partnerships and more women on executive and management committees of law firms. I would like to see a generation of women lawyers who do not see having a family as the death-knell to their hard earned careers. I would like to see more male partners getting the coaching they need to become active leaders and rainmakers within firms. I would like to see training offered in law firms on leadership, management, business development and team dynamics that truly rivals the programming developed in major corporations and offered to their executives.
Bio: Ms. Kaspi received her B.A. from Princeton University where she graduated magna cum laude and she received her J.D. from The Georgetown University Law Center where she graduated with honors. She graduated with a Masters in Clinical Social Work from New York University and completed a Fellowship in Psychoanalysis through the New York University Psychoanalytic Institute. She is a Certified Career Management Coach through the International Coaching Federation and she is a member of the International Coaching Federation and the New York Chapter of the International Coaching Federation. She is also a Qualified Administrator of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator Instrument.
Ms. Kaspi was a practicing litigator with a large New York firm and then the Director of Legal Recruiting with a prominent international recruiting company. In those roles, Elena had the benefit of meeting with and listening to the career ambitions and concerns of hundreds of lawyers. Over time, Elena identified a need in the legal marketplace for unbiased, trained, professional executive career coaching and mentoring. With that in mind, Elena created LawScope Coaching to meet the career needs of lawyers at every stage of their professional development.