Although women are entering the legal profession in numbers equal to or greater than their male counterparts, it is not unheard of a woman in law to be in the situation of joining an all-male law firm.
Navigating this culture is definitely firm specific but there are steps we can take to know whether this firm is the right fit and if we will thrive in this environment without female mentorship or colleagues.
Today we hear from three women who have the experience of being the only woman in the room. Here's their take on how we can successfully navigate and set ourselves up to excel when working in all male law firms.
Q: What is the most important advice you would give another woman in law joining an all-male firm in order to achieve success?
1 – Research, Be Open, Don't be Shy in Seeking Mentoring
Claire Melehani is a former investment banker turned complex litigation attorney at Gates Eisenhart Dawson, a boutique Silicon Valley firm. She works directly with high net-worth individuals in the midst of high-conflict litigation. For business inquiries, including referrals, contact her at Gates Eisenhart Dawson.
Before accepting the position, ask to meet with (or, in the COVID-19 era, Zoom with) the support staff.
As with any firm, speaking with the support staff will give you big clues into the firm’s culture. If, in your meeting with the support staff, you learn that everyone on a female-only support team has worked with the male-led firm for decades and still speaks very highly of their male colleagues, then that’s a great sign!
When I learned that most of the female employees at my firm have been here for 10-20 years, my takeaway was that the male attorneys treat them with dignity and respect - otherwise they would have moved along to another firm long ago.
Next, ask the staff what they are looking for in a new hire. Their responses will not only clue you in to any gender-related red flags, but may also give you ways to quickly add value to the team if you do accept the offer.
Once you accept the job, try to check your own biases and expectations at the door.
Like it or not, we all have implicit bias. I was extremely nervous joining my firm as its first female attorney, especially since, due to COVID-19, I never met my employers in person when interviewing. My nerves were only worsened by my time in another male-dominated industry: investment banking. I feared I was signing up for the same culture, but I decided to take the plunge anyway and I am so glad I did.
The partners at my new firm are dedicated to mentorship, personable, and brilliant. The only other associate, who is a few years my senior, mirrors those same values.
I am treated as an equal part of the team - my suggestions are seriously considered, and often adopted, despite my young age. I look forward to continuing to learn and grow with my firm, and I am given the support I need.
Don’t be shy – your male colleagues may be able to mentor you in unexpected areas.
Find a mentor at your new firm and, if it is a small firm, try to establish rapport with all your male colleagues. Be honest about how you would like to grow as a professional, and don’t be shy about asking for advice.
If you are worried about issues you believe may only impact female attorneys, ask them for advice anyway – you may be surprised! I often receive great advice from the male colleagues on hurdles I didn’t expect them to be able to relate to, and they’ve yet to steer me wrong!
2 – Understand the Firm Dynamics, Be Yourself, Be Curious
Faye Gelb is the founder of Her Legal Global and manager of Daniel Gelb Law. Our virtual law firm focuses on personal injury and disability law assistance to lawyers. Join Her Legal Global for networking, mentoring and support throughout your legal journey. Connect with me on LinkedIn.
Understand the dynamics in the firm
When joining an all male firm, as I did during my career, it is important to understand the dynamics of the people who are working there, especially since the majority of smaller firms have all female support staff.
As Claire mentioned, it is important to speak with the staff and learn more about how they perceive their work. It is also equally important to determine how they see you.
Some staff are open and innovative but others may perceive any change or the addition of a new associate as less than positive. We all have our feelings about "change" and you want to know ahead of time where you stand. Take the time to ask questions to learn more about them and in the process, how they see your role. You can gather invaluable information that will allow you to decide if this position is for you or if you take it, how these key relationships will be navigated.
Be True to Yourself
Take the time to be yourself. You were the person hired and no one will be surprised to learn that there is a woman now in the firm.
Part of a successful journey in law is knowing our core values and our own personal definition of success. Using those to guide your decisions will keep you true to you. It also allows you to strategize:
Access the opinions and mentoring built into the firm; men can be the biggest supporters of our careers. To this day, I can remember the cases and the work I did for that firm despite the intervening years. I spent hours on highly intensive cases, saw incredible ethical behaviour and learned from participating.
However, I think I would have learned even more if I had seen my role as one that incorporated curiousity about the men I worked for and with:
The questions you ask will depend on your stage of career but there are always questions and seeking answers will let you learn and avoid pitfalls.
Take advantage of the wealth of knowledge around you. It's your most valuable resource.
3 – Network within your own all-male law firm
Gabriela Kratchanov is a Canadian lawyer practicing in Ottawa Canada with Spiteri & Ursulak. Her practice focuses on civil litigation, corporate law, real estate and estate law. Business inquiries, including referrals, can be directed to sulaw.ca
The one piece of advice I would give another woman joining an all-male firm is do not underestimate the importance of networking within your own firm. This includes going to your male counterpart’s offices for a brief chat all the way to prioritize socializing opportunities. Generally, I have found that the men within my office enjoy discussing files and work in the evenings over a drink. This is mainly because they are senior partners who spend most of their day on the phone or with clients, making it difficult to connect with them during working hours.
Socializing with your colleagues in an all-male law firm is important
It is easy to get bogged down by the work and tell yourself that you don’t have time to socialize. I personally find this challenging as I often have my “laundry list” of work to do and spending an hour socializing is not on the list. However, I found that this is where a lot of my male colleagues discuss work and end up bonding. Although, it may not be 100% of the discussion, being on the outside of those discussions can put you at a disadvantage.
Being able to sit with them and enjoy a drink (not necessarily an alcoholic one) can truly set you apart and allow you to gain valuable time with your male colleagues.
During these discussions try not to be shy and express your challenges with a file or a client. In my experience, these informal gatherings are where a lot of my male counterparts connect and forge bonds. Also, it can provide you with a great platform to discuss the work that you’ve been doing, which may lead to others coming to you if they need advice on their files, or vice versa.
7 Tips for success when joining an all-male law firm
Joining all-male firm can be an incredible experience that excels your career. Here are 7 steps to taking full advantage of your role.
1. Understand the dynamics in the firm
2. Find out how the support staff see your role
3. Check your biases at the door
4. Lose your shyness and be true to yourself
5. Be curious
6. Be strategic in pursuing your goals
7. Seek Networking & Mentoring in the firm
Faye Gelb, founder of Her Legal Global is passionate about empowering lawyers to have a career that makes them smile when they wake up in the morning. Lawyer, Entrepreneur, startup cofounder, front end web developer, photographer and business consultant. Her goal is to help you use your law degree and have a career you love, on your own terms, throughout your career.