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Ten Things You Need to Know As a Woman In-House Lawyer

For our attorney friends who serve as in-house legal counsel, one of our favorite writers on that particular niche of the legal community is Sterling Miller, who regularly writes his “Ten Things You Need to Know…about a variety of topics. He turned his latest column over to a friend who writes about the “Ten Things You Need to Know As a Woman In-House Lawyer.” Female, male, non-binary or otherwise, it’s worth the read.

First of all, a big thank you to Sterling Miller for giving me the opportunity to steal some of his blog time to write about a topic that is near and dear to my heart. Second, a brief introduction. My name is Talia Jarvis, and I am your average 30-something-year-old woman lawyer, wife, and mom with two kids and a demanding legal career. After graduating from law school in 2011, I spent about seven years in BigLaw at Latham & Watkins and Vinson & Elkins, before moving into the startup company world to earn my stripes as in-house counsel.

When I first started practicing law, I just assumed that men and women lawyers were on equal footing – we all went to law school, and the top law students were always an equal mix of women and men, so I fully expected this equality to last through to law firm partnership and beyond. But over the years, the assumption I had made wasn’t reflected in the numbers. When I started at my first law firm, our starting class was around 50 associates, just over 50% women. By the time I left that firm three years later, there were maybe 10 women from my class left, a disproportionately smaller number than our male counterparts. A decade later, and there are maybe three of them. Across the board in BigLaw, women make up roughly 20% of equity partners and 30% of non-equity partners. [1]

The numbers are not better in-house. Across the U.S., the number of women in top legal positions (particularly CLO/GC) is roughly 30%.[2]  So with law schools averaging more women than men students and the large number of smart, talented women lawyers graduating from law school and entering the workplace, what gives?

Much smarter women than me have opined on the subject and it’s a complex and muddy problem to solve, and I don’t have a simple solution to offer. What I can offer instead, however, and this is the pragmatist in me who also loves a good mantra, is a list of ten things that I have observed women lawyers don’t know or do as in-house counsel that their male counterparts seem to do quite well.  It is my belief that, over time, this has resulted in a widening of the gap between them, and, if women in-house counsel focus on these ten things, they will find themselves much better positioned for success:

1.  Ask for what you need.  If this were a blog about “One Thing,” this would be it. Ask for what you need, ask for what you need, ask for what you need. Okay, that’s three things, but you get the point.  Over the years I have seen so many excellent women lawyers leave their jobs for reasons that, if they had just had the confidence to plainly and directly ask for what they needed, may have prevented them from making that choice. Instead, after stoically and silently bearing their frustration, they just finally broke down and quit. Whether it’s a raise, working remotely sometimes (or all the time, thank you COVID), more headcount for your team, or getting the company to buy you a decent at-home printer, there are lots of things that may make it easier for you to do your job well, find that work-life balance, obtain greater job satisfaction, in other words, things that get what you need so you don’t give up and walk away. Maybe you are working too many hours and as your company continues to grow it’s time to ask to hire another lawyer for your team. Maybe you’re nine months pregnant and your feet are killing you and you could really do with a footrest under your desk. Or maybe you have young kids and you need to work from home sometimes or leave early to pick up your kids from school because you and your spouse both have jobs. If you’re wary of asking for what you need, remember that employee turnover is expensive and inefficient, and companies don’t like it. A BigLaw senior partner once told me that the firm gladly bought one of our female associates (who was also a mom) a $2,000 at-home printer because that’s what she needed to do her job when she had to work from home from time to time, and it was well worth spending the money to give her what she needed and keep her at the firm rather than having to go through the pain and cost of finding, hiring and training someone else. While asking for a $2,000 printer only flies in certain circumstances, you get my point. Before you get so frustrated or burned out that you simply walk out the door, ask for what you need first. You may be pleasantly surprised – I have seen firsthand that many times you get what you ask for, if you’re just brave enough to ask. And if not, well, the worst that you get is a “no”, and then (see No. 10 below) you’re in the same place you were before anyway.

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