5 Women Partners on How to Achieve Partner Success in Law

Faye Gelb, Editor

How Can Women in Law achieve Female Partner Success?

When I started out in law, I had a vague notion that partnership is an end goal in private practice. But it never crossed my mind to put energy and effort into creating the foundation for partner success at my junior level. That's a mistake.

It is never too early to learn what is involved in becoming a partner. Taking the time to learn about what you need to do will help you learn what to avoid. I made mistakes such as not networking and being only focused on getting the work done. Trust me, if you are relying on your work to advocate for you, it won't happen. I also never made the connection between networking at an early stage and building a book of business on that network foundation for later success and partnership.

Don't do what I did. Learn early about partnership and continue to learn as you progress. Whether you are a partner now or starting out, the five women I asked, have great insights to share on their successful journey to partnership.

BONUS - The Roadmap to Female Partnership in a Law Firm is included at the end. It's an easy way to plan how you are going to proceed.


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Q: Where should a female lawyer put most of her efforts in order to achieve partnership?

5 Women Law Partners share their wisdom and insights

Sharon A. Roberts is a Canadian partner at Field LLP, litigator, occupational health and safety (OHS) lawyer, arbitrator and certified psychological health and safety advisor in Alberta. Business inquiries, including referrals, can be directed to Field Law LLP

female law partner, Sharon A. Roberts, Her Legal Global, law partner

Female Partners in law require leadership vision 

Female lawyers who have made a decision to attain partnership (and that's a serious decision and how one makes it ought to be its own question!), in my view, should have both a vision of what it means to be a strong leader, mentor and lawyer and what it means to run a business (because a partnership is, after all, a business model). 

  • What might practice look like 5 years from now as a business co-owner (i.e., a partner)? 10 years? In the sunset of our career?
  • What are your greatest strengths, challenges and which of each are critical to your vision (like it or not)?
  • What is the makeup and business model of the partnership you want to join or create?
  • Is that makeup and business model a good fit with your vision and business objectives?
  • Is this the right fit for you? For the partnership?"

Partnerships are a long game model 

Partnerships tend to be a long game model for practice, though partners do migrate more these days than a generation ago. If you're sure this is the partnership for you, find out everything you can about what it takes to "get in". Find out what it takes to earn what suits your vision in that partnership.

There's math, business skills, and free labour involved 

Evaluate, or invite an accountant to assist you evaluating if math isn't your thing, what you'll need to earn to achieve your goal (partnership) and maintain the level of earnings you need/desire.

  • Remember, partnerships rely on voluntary contributions of time by the partners. If you haven't factored those hours into your partnership day yet, do so.
  • Ask questions. Find out how much "free labour" other female partners put in. Ask the men, too.
  • If, after all that "research and analysis", you're still keen on joining the partnership, envision yourself as a business owner, a leader, a business developer and a mentor -- in addition to the trusted advisor you are to your clients.
  • Find which of those skills most speak to you and demonstrate your strengths in those areas. 

Don't ignore the stuff you don't love - but illustrate your shine factor and show your work ethic and commitment where the shine doesn't come naturally. Be you. Do your best. Be sure this is for you. Good luck.

Female attorney, Law Partner, Sophia Strong Castillo Her Legal Global contributor

Sophia Castillo is an environmental and toxics lawyer, a specialist in California’s Proposition 65 law, a mom and bonus mom to three girls, and a partner at Downey Brand LLP in San Francisco. She can be reached at scastillo@downeybrand.com or through her LinkedIn page here.

Putting the "you" into your legal journey

I am a big proponent of putting yourself first, making your own luck and controlling your own destiny.

To me, in the practice of law, these things mean creating, maintaining and growing your:

  • network and
  • your business opportunities and book of business.

Putting yourself first in the practice of law is not without a self-care component.  To be successful women lawyers and entrepreneurs, we must take care of ourselves, mentally and physically, as well. So often we give everything to our jobs and forget to take care of ourselves!  It’s certainly a life’s work and one that is so important- as a first step, find ways to start your day that nurture your soul.  

Sharon G. Druker is a senior partner in the Business Law Group at Montreal, Canada law firm Robinson Sheppard Shapiro LLP, and heads their Corporate Department. Business inquiries, including referrals, can be directed to her at RSSLex

Female Law Partner, Canadian female law partner, women in law, lawyers

The answer shifts as a lawyer and her practice evolves.

  • At the outset, the key is to acquire an outstanding skill set, and to stretch herself outside her comfort zone to take on new challenges.
  • Ask lots of questions, be intellectually curious and always be learning (apologies to Glengarry Glen Ross).
  • At the same time, take care to avoid being pigeonholed into domestic work tasks if you see they are disproportionately assigned to female lawyers (bearing in mind everyone, especially at a more junior level, has to do some “grunt” work, so don’t be a prima donna about it either).
  • Affiliate yourself with more senior lawyers as mentors and ideally sponsors. Mentors provide advice, whereas sponsors provide support and recommend you to others, both within and outside your firm.
  • Networking, like charity, begins at home, so make sure you get yourself known within your firm, ideally as a “go to” person in an area you genuinely find interesting.
  • Work on committees with members of other departments to broaden your reach and develop allies. Internal mentors and sponsors will help you identify and take advantage of external networking opportunities.
  • Get active outside your firm as well, both in the legal community (for example your local bar association), as well as in the larger community (for example a non-profit board in something you are passionate about – if you’re doing it just to put a board on your CV, it will show and negate the value of the experience).

Natural Methods to Networking for Female Lawyers

Find a way of networking which feels natural to you. If you’re not the cocktail party type, give presentations, or if that’s not your thing, publish thought pieces, in your firm newsletter, on a blog, in your bar association publication and especially on LinkedIn.

The bottom line is that you need to attract business, both new clients and new work from existing clients. You need to be profitable (bring in more revenue to your firm than you cost them, including salary, benefits, overhead, etc.), and be seen as a future source of work not only for yourself but also for your colleagues. You want to be billing on work done by others which you brought to the firm outside your own area of expertise, in addition of course to your own work. You want to position yourself as a team player, and as a person who can contribute to growing the pie for everyone.  

Female Attorney Law Partner, Women in Law, female attorney

Heather R. Sweren, is a partner focusing on family law at the Maryland firm Brodsky, Renehan, Pearlstein & Bouquet, Chartered in Maryland. Business inquiries, including referrals, can be directed to her at BRP Family Law

How Female Attorneys can find Clients

I agree, the key to making partner is demonstrating that you have value. Value to a law firm is first and foremost about making the firm money. A firm does not run without a steady flow of income. To make money, you must figure out how to bring in business, which is one of the hardest tasks for a young lawyer.

How to find clients:

Early in my career, with the goal of finding clients, I frequented the typical networking events – large events with lots of people I did not know, wearing handwritten name tags on their chests. For some, a room filled with hundreds of strangers is exciting. For me, this was terrifying.

I have come to learn that I did not have to suffer through these events to find clients. The best way to find clients is to be intentional with your efforts. What I mean by this is that between a career and family (and maybe a little time for yourself!), we have very little time to commit to networking and marketing, so time spent toward those efforts should have real value to your overall life, and it is important to assess what networking opportunities make sense for you.

Men network on the golf course (I know, I made a generalization, but that is my perception). I do not know how to golf, and I do not want to learn. Instead, I focus my efforts on activities that I enjoy:

  • volunteering with organizations that interest me and make me proud,
  • joining county bar organization committees that have an agenda that is in-line with my priorities,
  • mom events,
  • exercise groups, etc.

Building relationships with people who enjoy the same things as you is far more valuable for building business than meeting strangers in a large banquet hall.

Jacquie Stevens is an Ontario, Canada environmental litigation partner at Willms & Shier Environmental Lawyers LLP, and Certified Specialist in Environmental Law by the Law Society of Ontario. Her full bio can be found here. Business inquiries can be directed to jstevens@willmsshier.com

Canadian female Law partner, women in law, female lawyer

Be where others aren't to build your book of business

In an article I was interviewed for by Precedent Magazine in early 2016, shortly after becoming a partner at Willms & Shier Environmental Lawyers LLP, I identified 2 things that were key in my mind to making partner at a small firm: 

  • becoming a specialist in my area of practice – or a "hyper-specialist" as I called it then and
  • building relationships to build a book of business.

For me, this meant meeting with environmental consultants and being involved with industry organizations – the people that may need my legal services.  These are still key aspects of being a partner for me. 

The need to maintain my knowledge and expertise in my area of practice supports my personal and our firm brand.  And, I still love networking with all of my environmental and industry contacts, although this year we are keeping in touch a little differently.  

Another thing I have learned, and it is about partnership, having a satisfying legal career, and well-being, is to be where others are not – to be blunt, to be where men are not.  For me, this is through my involvement with the Women's Law Association of Ontario.  I believe in WLAO's mandate – to promote, encourage and advance women in the legal profession – and as an added bonus, I have met and learned from so many amazing women and women lawyers about their lives, their growth, and their strengths.  Perhaps I went a little further than most with my involvement and support of WLAO… I was the President of WLAO from 2018 -2020 and was honoured to lead WLAO during its 100th anniversary celebrations in 2019.  

Her Legal Global is also a place where we can learn and grow together, both personally and professionally.  I am so thankful for what Faye and Her Legal Global have already provided to me through content and connections!   

The Roadmap to Female Partnership in a Law Firm

8 Steps to Success in Law at the Partnership Level

Five women partners just built a roadmap to female partnership in any law firm. These principles apply across areas of law and types of firms. You can't go wrong by taking the time to learn what these talented and experienced women have learned and continue to apply to their own legal paths to success in law.

1. Have leadership vision

Sharon A. Roberts - Connect on LinkedIn

 

2. Assess the $$$$ you need to earn 

Sharon A. Roberts

 

3. Put the “you” into the process 

Sophia Castillo - Connect on LinkedIn

 

4. Know it is an evolving process  

Sharon G. Druker - Connect on LinkedIn

 

5. Position yourself in the firm 

Sharon A. Roberts, Sharon G. Druker

 

6. Book of Business - Natural methods for networking   

Sharon G. Druker, Heather R. Sweren - Connect on LinkedIn

 

7. Book of Business - Be a specialist   

Jacquie Stevens - Connect on LinkedIn

 

8. Book of Business - Be where others aren’t                      

Jacquie Stevens

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Lawyer, Faye Gelb, Founder, Her Legal Global

About The Editor

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.