By now, most people are aware of the persistent wage and value gaps existing between men and women in the United States. The legal profession is no exception. Despite encouraging recent trends showing progress is underway, there is still much work to be done. In order to mitigate professional inequities, studies show it is imperative for women to proactively self-advocate throughout their careers. And yet, even modest self-promotion typically makes women cringe. Yes, even female lawyers report dreading it.
While advocacy is at the very heart of their own profession, women attorneys often remain reluctant to initiate negotiations on behalf of themselves. Significant matters like salary, benefits, raises, advancement opportunities, and client access are habitually acquiesced to without negotiation or avoided altogether by women in all facets of the legal profession. Ironically, these same women are often the fiercest and most effective advocates when it comes to representing others. Following is a discussion of three ways women lawyers can harness their own impressive advocacy abilities to ask for what they are worth in the workplace.
Reframe self-advocacy into holistic terms.
Even in 2020, professional self-advocacy has profoundly different associations for women than for men. A woman “tooting her own horn” openly in the workplace is generally still viewed as greedy, selfish, or desperate both by men AND other women. Unsurprisingly then, professional women are often uncomfortable asking directly for what they want and are worth in this type of culture. At the opposite end of the spectrum, men are encouraged to push the envelope and ask questions every step of the way when it comes to their careers: negotiating salaries and raises, vying for access to key projects, clients, and promotions. They discuss achievements, however big or small, openly and with great pride, regularly receiving inspiring kudos about their professional successes and open goals. In fact, aggressive self-advocacy by a man is viewed as a “highly marketable skill” and a “key leadership strategy.” Certainly, there are men in the legal profession who may feel intimidated by or uncomfortable with self-advocacy too. The difference is that these men have “more unsolicited and qualified support to navigate them through the process.” 1
So, what are women to do in a culture that demands self-promotion and then judges them for it? One solution is to stop viewing self-advocacy in a vacuum. Rather, women lawyers should think of it more holistically. Reframe the uncomfortable thought of advocating for personal gain and individual growth to include the many benefits it can give to others along the way. Your team benefits from better quality work if you request and receive that long awaited promotion; your clients benefit from the extra resources and attention when you speak up about your substantive needs and goals; your family benefits monetarily or in terms of flexibility (not to mention enjoying a happier, more fulfilled you) when you ask for a raise or alternative work arrangement; and, perhaps most importantly, women in all industries benefit from you and other women lawyers serving as role models for successful self-advocacy in the workplace.
Visibility. Take yourself off mute.
Studies show that women tend to stay out of the spotlight in the workplace and their contributions are routinely and systematically overlooked as a result. Women lawyers of color are at an even greater risk of remaining “unseen.” Measurable progress requires women to promote and endorse their goals and achievements in more openly discernable ways. As one large law firm partner commented, “The key here is proactive visibility. Don’t wait quietly until the day you feel deserving of reward, but rather discuss your ambitions openly and regularly early on.” Doing so, she pointed out, allows decision makers to visualize you taking part in meaningful projects, engaging with important clients, and even achieving a particular salary level. Similarly, do not wait patiently for a trusted colleague or team member to boast on your behalf, hoping the “powers that be” may notice. Instead, take the reins. Speak up clearly and often regarding your specific successes. Approach your manager regularly about the current projects you are engaged on, and even more importantly, the ones you would like to work on or lead down the line. These meetings are key opportunities to name-drop other meaningful accomplishments and contributions that you and your team have made. Be direct and err on the side of brevity, but make sure to stay top of mind among those who weigh in on promotions, raises, client/project delegation, and other important decisions.
Relying on a strong resume, well-written firm or LinkedIn bio, or positive performance review is simply not enough. Ask your manager, mentor, or sponsor to help identify opportunities and avenues to share your work with decision makers both inside and outside your organization. Seek out other strong women in places you may not have considered: leaders at other companies or firms, speakers at conferences, law school professors, family friends, or business colleagues. Find people who will support and inspire you to push forward. Make your career objectives known as you are reaching for them, and you will be surprised how many others are willing to help along the way.
Training and reps.
Think of self-promotion as a muscle that needs regular training to remain in top condition. Start advocating for yourself in small ways every day to maintain strength for when it really matters. Practice talking about yourself in less formal settings until you become more comfortable with the verbiage. Discuss your professional strengths, abilities, and accomplishments with your pet or favorite house plant. Rehearse sounding “unrehearsed” in the mirror or on a Zoom with a trusted friend. Unabashedly wow your roommate or partner with a two minute or less self-promotional elevator pitch. Practice until you sound confident, natural, and authentic. Building the muscle memory involved with “asking for your worth” does not come over night. As one woman commented, “Learning to promote myself and negotiate for what I really want was a process. It took consistency and repetition before becoming second nature. Now I actually look forward to it!”
When women in Fortune 500 law departments were asked how they overcame the hurdles of self-advocacy, several reported using everyday interactions as opportunities to practice their value pitches. Even with current COVID precautions, they suggest taking advantage of each masked hallway encounter or one-on-one, every socially distanced group meeting, or virtual conference as yet another chance to build your brand. Others emphasized the importance of marketing yourself consistently as a competent, talented, and creative contributor. “Always be prepared to describe why you are more than just an employee. What makes you unique? Why are you an invaluable asset and leader in your organization and, more broadly, in the legal profession?” Practice regularly so that when the stakes are high and it is time to negotiate a raise, promotion, or the terms of a new job, you will be ready.
Advancing the gender equality needle forward in the legal profession will never be fun. But it certainly can be rewarding with far-reaching results. Indeed, female lawyers - with their sophisticated negotiation skills and strong affinities for advocating fiercely on behalf of others - hold the unique potential to serve as role models for self-advocacy among all women. Throwing centuries of self-doubt and professional modesty to the wind is inherently uncomfortable. Reframing the term “self-advocacy” in a more holistic manner, maintaining consistent visibility among key decision makers, and training newly developed, self-promotional “muscles” daily are practical ways women lawyers can push insecurities aside and ask for the professional terms they deserve.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that while the onus to take action is centered primarily on individual women in this discussion, it will always take a village to generate endurable change.
1 Sankar, Carol. “Why Don’t More Women Negotiate.” Forbes, 13 July 2017.
Delgado, Jennifer Fiorica, and Watson, Jewel McGowan. "INSIGHT: Finding a Mentor or Sponsor—Tips for Millennial Lawyers, by Millennial Women Lawyers." Bloomberg Law, 9 September 2019.
Hester, Madeline. “How to Self-Advocate with Confidence According to 6 Women in Tech.” Built In Boston, 13 July 2020.
Kramer, Andrea S., and Harris, Alton B. “4 Ways Women Can Advocate for Themselves.” AMA Playbook, 13 April 2016.
Lemmo, Ann E. "The Importance of Female Mentorship: Tips for Lawyers on the Rise." Law.com, 1 July 2020.