Susan Smith Blakely

Why Should Women Lawyers Have to Ask?

Two things converged for me in the last week, as they rarely do.  For starters, I have been writing a speech on women lawyers as effective negotiators for a conference of health care lawyers later this month.  In that speech, which focuses on the fact that women lawyers can be very effective negotiators on behalf of others but are not so effective in negotiations for themselves, I discuss some of the profound reasons for this disparity, which are cemented in cultural, societal and gender-based learned behaviors.  I have developed this particular presentation as part of the Best Friends at the Bar Multi-Session Program to supplement law firm Women's Initiatives, and I am looking forward to having that conversation with the women health care lawyers of the American Health Lawyers Association in Baltimore on March 31st.

One of the things that I will address in that presentation is making "the ask" --- as in asking for an increase in salary, asking for a promotion, and asking for a much coveted assignment to a trial team.  How to make the ask, and the differences between the way that men and women typically ask for what they want is a fascinating discussion.

So, when I went to the Georgetown Law Women's Forum that same week, I was very interested in the remarks by Barbara Kurmsiek, CEO and Chair of Calvert Investments, who also is affiliated with the Georgetown University Women's Leadership Institute. She has been recognized as a member of the 2013 Washington Business Journal Power 100 and as one of the most powerful women in DC by Washingtonian magazine.  You now understand why she was worth listening to.

Of particular interest was Barbara Kurmsiek's assertion that WOMEN SHOULD NOT HAVE TO ASK any more than men should --- but they do.  The facts show that women are not as easily recognized as talented and worthy of recognition, and the result is that they have to ask for things that come naturally to men.  Her comment that leaders and managers should not be afraid to elevate women and that the worst possible result would be "as many average to incompetent women leaders of organizations as there currently are male leaders of that same description" really got my attention. Think about it.

I agree with Ms. Kurmsiek that women should not have to ask, but I also know that they do have to ask and that they will continue to have to ask.  So, be sure you ask in a way that is most likely to get what you want.  Here are a few pointers on the right way for women lawyers to make "the ask":

  • Be prepared, be calm and be in control of yourself;
  • Argue your “case” in the same way you would argue on behalf of your clients and your loved ones BUT without excess emotion;
  • Be YOURSELF. If aggressive is not your personality, don’t try to fake it;
  • Think of negotiating for yourself as negotiating for all the women behind you who also are deserving;
  • Don’t apologize for your requests and positions; and
  • Maintain a sense of humor.

We all know that negotiating for salary is considered "the BIG ask."  So, here are some additional pointers on negotiating for a salary increase:

  • Take advantage of a “win” in timing salary negotiations;
  • Emphasize why you represent good value for your employer. Don't be humble;
  • Be prepared with personal statistics about hours, production, committee service, pro bono representation, new client development efforts and results, and positive relationships with firm colleagues and clients;
  • Remember that being denied “a little” can become “a lot” over time; and
  • If you are not successful, have a back-up --- another ask!

Good luck in perfecting THE ASK!  And think about attending the Georgetown Law Women's Forum next year.  It is very much worthy of your time!

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