Susan Smith Blakely

Women Lawyers Look Back

Ms. JD has asked me to look back on my career and what I wish I would have known ten years ago.  What better way to do that than on this blog.  I always welcome the opportunity to participate with Ms. JD, and I was delighted to be the recipient of the Ms. JD "Sharing Her Passion" award last year.  It is a great organization for both young and more seasoned women lawyers.

If I look back ten years, I wish that I would have known how gratifying it would be to use a project like Best Friends at the Bar to spread career advice to young women lawyers like you.  Although I had a great passion for the project when I started it in 2007, only now am I able to gauge the incredible effect it has had on young women lawyers, especially, which was evident at the Book Launch for my third book recently.  More than 100 guests attended to celebrate women lawyers and the new book that is focused on the responsibility of law firm leaders to lead effectively and to retain and advance women lawyers.  That would not have happened ten years ago.

But, for me really to accomplish what Ms. JD has asked, I have to look back a lot further than ten years.  After all, I have been at this woman-lawyer thing for more than thirty years.  Any wisdom that I have learned is included between the covers of the books in the Best Friends at the Bar book series, and I recommend you read those books to put my "what I wish I had known" list into a larger and even more meaningful context.

Here's what I wish I had known when I joined my first law firm in 1979 and when it soon became 24 litigators --- 23 men and me!

  • That a career is a long time.  It is made up of phases, and you have to take the long view.  What is right at one moment in your career may not be right or doable at another.  Remain flexible;
  • That you need to have a Personal Definition of Success.  Not someone else's definition, especially not a male lawyer's.  Your situation and circumstances are unique, and you have to fashion your own definition of success within the context of those circumstances and your own unique situation;
  • That gender discrimination is never a good thing.  It is wrong.  However, sometimes the things that are said to you and done to you are not intended to harm you.  There is intentional bias, and then there is unconscious bias.  Learn to recognize the difference.  Although unconscious bias also has the potential to harm you, it should be dealt with differently than intentional discrimination.  Education can be an effective tool against unconscious bias, and you need to become part of the education process.  Remember this:  Be a discriminating listener but do not listen for discrimination;
  • That you need to be the best lawyer you can be from Day One of your practice.  In addition to being a highly competent young lawyer, who is skilled in research and writing, advocacy and logical thinking, you need to be professional in every way and not comprise your principles.  Conduct yourself as a professional.  Dress as a professional.  Speak as a professional.  If you are being marginalized, deal with it in a professional manner.  Tears and tandrums rarely win the argument, and they almost always shut down communication channels;
  • That the most important skill for advancement in the legal profession is a combination of networking and client development.  You will demonstrate your value to your firm in a very visible way if you take advantage of networking opportunities to "sell" your law firm and your practice, and the rewards are huge when you bring new clients to the firm.  Nothing else will distinguish you more among your peers, including billing 200 more hours than anyone else.  Creating value for your firm and for yourself, to trade on in the future, should be your goal;
  • That women lawyers bring different values to the workplace, and those values are what define us as people.  We should not have to relinquish those values to be good lawyers.  In fact, I would argue that those values make us better and more compassionate lawyers; and
  • That being both a mother and a lawyer is an unbeatable combination.  It is the best job in the world, but it also is very challenging.  Keep the faith.  You can make it work --- with a little help from your Best Friends at the Bar!  That includes both male and female lawyers and effective law firm leadership.  Read my new book, Best Friends at the Bar:  Top-Down Leadership for Women Lawyers (Wolters Kluwer/Aspen Publishers, 2015) so that you know what you have a right to expect from law firm leaders.  Then share the book with some of those leaders so that they can aspire to being the best leaders that they can be.

Of course, the list goes on, but that gives you some idea of what I would like all of you to know much earlier in your careers than I learned it.  I had no female role models when I started practice.  It is a privilege to participate in your careers in this way, and I highly recommend it to others.  We all will rise together, on the same seas and in the same boat.

Good luck to all of you!  You have made a fine choice of career, now safeguard that career and make it work for you.


Susan Smith Blakely is the Founder of LegalPerspectives LLC and an award-winning, nationally-recognized author, speaker and consultant on issues related to young women lawyers, young women law students and young women interested in careers in the law.  She is author of Best Friends at the Bar:  What Women Need to Know about a Career in the Law (Wolters Kluwer/Aspen Publishers 2009), and Best Friends at the Bar:  The New Balance for Today's Woman Lawyer (Wolters Kluwer Law & Business 2012), which addresses the work-life struggle for women lawyers and includes twelve profiles of women who have successfully transitioned from one practice setting to another.  Her new book, Best Friends at the Bar:  Top-Down Leadership for Women Lawyers, will focus on the responsibilities of law firm leaders and will be released by Wolters Kluwer Law & Business in 2015.

Ms. Blakely frequently speaks at colleges and universities, law schools, law firms and law organizations, and she has been featured in media including the LA Daily Journal, National Jurist, Washington Examiner Newspaper, Forbes Woman, DC Spotlight, Daily Muse and Huffington Post Business.  Ms. Blakely also is a frequent guest speaker and panelist at conferences on women's issues and the law profession, and she has been a featured speaker at the US Department of Justice, Civil Division.  She is the recipient of the Ms. JD 2015 "Sharing Her Passion Award" for her work on behalf of women in the law.
Ms. Blakely graduated from the University of Wisconsin with distinction and from Georgetown University Law Center where she was a teaching fellow. She is a member of the CoachSource global network of leadership coaches and a career coach for the Indiana University Marshall Goldsmith Leadership Development and Executive Coaching Academy.   For more information, please visit 

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