Susan Smith Blakely

Women Lawyers Should Avoid the Heat

Yes, it is very hot this summer in most parts of America, but this is not the kind of heat I mean.

The heat I am talking about occurs when boys and girls start fooling around on the job.  There is no place for this in the law profession, and I hope you know it.  I made it clear to you in my first book, Best Friends at the Bar: What Women Need to Know about a Career in the Law (Aspen Publishers 2009).  Presenting yourself as a professional to avoid mixed or wrong sexual/relationship messages is serious business and needs to be taken seriously.

Here is some of what I wrote then:  "I am always amazed at the stories that my [book] contributors tell  ---- tales of nipples peeking through sweaters and blouses and exposed cleavage.  They recount the necessity to counsel young women attorneys to raise the necklines and lower the hemlines. ... Let me share what the law school career counselors have to say on the subject.  Their advice is no breasts exposed, no panty lines showing, no visible underwear, and no thigh-length skirts. ... Too much perfume can also be a problem."

I stand by those words, and, from what I see in the audiences of young women lawyers in programs I present across the country, you do take it seriously.  Today, there is  heightened awareness of gender issues in the workplace, and young women lawyers are presenting themselves as true professionals.  Bravo!  Take a bow! 

Even with that success, however, now there is another twist on male/female workplace issues that you need to consider.  As pointed out by Vivia Chen of The Careerist in an article for The American Lawyer, a recent poll demonstrates that many Americans do not approve of men and women being alone with each other in the workplace --- and that is particularly true when it comes to eating and drinking together.  JUST ALONE --- not fooling around.  Nearly two-thirds of those polled think that people should be extra cautious around members of the opposite sex in the work setting.

AND, here is what Chen calls the "real shocker."  Women are even more disapproving of mixing business with pleasure than are their male colleagues.  Check out the article for the statistics as they relate to particular kinds of interaction between the sexes and the socio-economic influence on polling.

One conclusion presented in the article is that many women believe or know that something is to be feared from these encounters.  Something like bad male behavior, temptation on both sides, or the threat of rumors that can tank careers.  Another conclusion is that the law profession is more evolved than the broader poll group and that women lawyers should not think of giving up prime job assignments because the work entailed being alone with a male colleague.  Anything else, according to Chen, would be  a "lousy career strategy." I agree with those conclusions, but I also know that there is nothing to be gained from turning a blind eye to the possibility of foul play.

Let me be clear.  I want you to take educated risks, not to be held back by outdated attitudes, and to be wildly successful in your practices.  But, I also want you to be aware that dangers lurk.  Do not get too comfortable in your quest for equality and a corner office that you ignore warning signs.  Inner office relationships typically end badly, and the junior lawyer, almost always a woman, is the one who gets the blame.  She, rather than the male partner, is so much easier for others to blame and keep their jobs.

If you feel the heat, get out of the kitchen.  Change the setting, have a difficult conversation, or bring someone else into the mix.  Even unfounded rumors can ruin careers.

You are smart, capable, ambitious and savvy.  You have been trained to know that innuendo can be just as persuasive as fact.  You understand leading questions, and you also should understand leading behaviors and that they can lead you where you do not want to go.

Put all your skills to work to protect yourself --- and then grab that brass ring!

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 Corporate Counsel Magazine, the LA Daily Journal, National Jurist, Washington Examiner Newspaper, Forbes Woman, DC Spotlight, Lawyerist. Com, Daily Muse and Huffington Post Business.  Ms. Blakely also is a frequent guest speaker and panelist at conferences on women's issues in business 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, and she is the recipient of a Lawyer Monthly Women in Law Award 2016.

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 www.bestfriendsatthebar.com. 

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