Talking “Ladder Down” with Author, Lauren Stiller Rikleen

This week I sat down with Lauren Stiller Rikleen to chat about her newest book, "Ladder Down:  Success Strategies For Lawyers From Women Who Will Be Hiring, Reviewing, And Promoting You." Lauren shared her perspective on the legal profession, and what lawyers (especially female lawyers) can do to promote their success.

Before I jump into the Q&A, let me give you a little background. Lauren is a nationally recognized expert on developing a thriving, diverse and multigenerational workforce.  As President of the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership, Lauren conducts workshops, speaks at conferences, retreats, and professional events, and provides training programs focusing on: strengthening multigenerational relationships in the workplace; women’s leadership and advancement; and strategies for minimizing the impacts of unconscious bias.

Lauren is the author of "You Raised Us - Now Work With Us: Millennials, Career Success, and Building Strong Workplace Teams" and  "Ending the Gauntlet: Removing Barriers to Women’s Success in the Law." As a former law firm equity partner, Lauren managed a diverse environmental law practice, bringing her strategic and negotiating skills to her clients’ enforcement and compliance problems.  She is also an experienced mediator. Learn more about Lauren, and the Rikleen Institute HERE.

Katie Day:  You've been researching the legal profession for a long time. How have you seen it change? What hasn't changed?

Lauren Stiller Rikleen: Let's start with the latter. The numbers with respect to compensation equity and women serving as equity partners and in key leadership roles have barely moved. The way in which women have progressed is inexcusably slow. To me, there's no excuse for us not having achieved parity with our male colleagues. We have been in the profession for a very long time in large numbers. When it comes to measures of success, we see improvement, but that improvement is too small and too slow.

I would add, on the positive side, I think that today much of the bias is unconscious bias as compared to the rampant overt gender bias we saw as women were entering the profession in growing numbers in the 70's, 80's, and 90's and, of course, earlier. Women have also come a long way in terms of the kind of work available to them, the sophistication of that work, and their presence as advocates in the courtroom and beyond. But having said that, it is amazing to me that I can still pick up a legal publication and read about somebody complaining about women wearing slacks in a courtroom. We can't be there today. We can't be talking about progress if we are arguing about whether women should be wearing pants to court. The very clear bias that existed earlier may have receded in a significant way, but now we're dealing with what can be equally as pernicious. The unconscious bias people still harbor about women in their roles and how they should and shouldn't behave lead us to the same place of pay inequality and lack of parity in leadership roles.

KD: What kind of impact do you think millennials will have on the legal profession?

LSR: I have extraordinarily high hopes for this generation.

In particular, challenges that have always been identified as women's issues in the workplace, for example, parental leave, and work-life flexibility, are now recognized as challenges for young men in the workplace as well. And when you talk to young men today, young fathers, they have the same concerns about wanting to be involved in their kids' lives and wanting to be able to have flexibility in the workplace without stigma attaching to it. And the more I started to explore this, I realized one of the great things in terms of the millennial generation is that parenting issues became gender neutral and that gives me huge hope for the future. I see significant changes ahead in the workplace as long as this generation stays focused on the importance of flexibility and insists on the cultural changes that are needed. (Note: A great resource that focuses on the changing roles of young fathers, in particular, is the Boston College Center for Work & Family - check out their publications about workplace flexibility here.)

KD: The book talks about mentorship and networking. Those terms can be intimidating for young lawyers and law students.  Why are these so important and how can young lawyers and law students get started?

LSR: We seek mentorship in order to have people in our professional lives who can give us advice. This is the person we can go to when we have awkward questions or need guidance. I say to younger people all the time that you don't have to have just one mentor and it doesn't have to be one person you can call day or night, but it does need to be someone you can trust.

 I think it's actually great to have multiple mentors and you do that just by creating the relationships. If you see someone you admire, go to that person and ask for the opportunity to get advice, get coffee, or stop by their office. Most people would be flattered by that. Go in with specific questions you'd like to know more about and be prepared to help carry the conversation. Most people are going to be very happy to talk with you. That's how you build those relationships. It's as easy and as hard as asking. Asking seems easy, but everyone has to work themselves up to it because you do feel a little uncomfortable.

Also think of networking as simply about building relationships - getting to know people and being a source of support to others, and hoping they may be a source of support for you in the future.

KD: Another topic the book mentions is advocating for yourself. It seems that women have a harder time with this self-advocacy. How have you seen that play out?

LSR: That's a real issue supported by research. As women become more successful they may be seen as less likable. That leaves women in a very difficult position. That is not to say that you shouldn't be successful. You just need to keep that research in mind as you develop strategies to work around it.

One thing that's important is to think about the different ways in which you can advocate for yourself. One way is through the self-evaluation memo people often need to write as part of the annual evaluation process. In that context, you're expected to put your best foot forward and talk about your accomplishments. So it's important to keep track of your accomplishments, compliments you get, victories you've had, and keep those in a file so when it's self-evaluation time, you can refer back to that. It is also important to make sure that your self-evaluation focuses on your own accomplishments. It's not the Academy Awards where you have to thank everybody who has ever been involved in your work.

Then there is the day-to-day world of being recognized. In law firms, for example, it can be common for people to send around emails touting someone's recent court or client victory. There is nothing wrong with seeking an ally in the firm that you can go to and say "This just happened. I would love it if you could let people know." That's a practice that would be very beneficial for women. When you've had a victory, find someone, an ally, in the firm who would send out that email congratulating you.

Finding allies who will help us share accomplishments is one of the best things we as women can do for each other. For example, I have a friend who is an amazing introducer because she credentials the people being introduced. She introduces you in a way that makes you sound interesting and highlights your accomplishments. Learning how to credential each other in a way that puts a person's best foot forward can be a really important tool for mutual support as we interact in the workplace.


I'd like to thank Lauren for taking the time to chat with me and share her advice. Her new book is packed full with great tips and stories from women in all areas of law and was a great read! Give it a go and let me know what you thought in the comments!

Write a comment

Please login to comment

Remember Me

Become a Member

FREE online community for women in the legal profession.



Subscribe to receive regular updates, news, and events from Ms. JD.

Connect with us

Follow or subscribe