Women in law speak: Career advice and gender equality


[ Makenzie Way, 3L at the University of Pennsylvania ]

Answers submitted anonymously by a mid-level female associate at a Big Law firm in a major U.S. city working in Labor and Employment

At BARBRI, we respect people’s privacy so we never push participants to reveal their identity. That said, we do ask that you not read into an individual’s decision to remain anonymous – often these decisions stem from a complex balancing of employer policies, time constraints, and/or professional and personal decisions to remain neutral or out of the spotlight. 

Big Law is traditionally seen as being a male-dominated industry, looking back, did you face any challenges when adjusting to law firm life that you feel relate to your gender – whether personal or institutional? If so, how did you overcome them?

Yes. Most of my challenges have come from inequitable or sexist treatment by opposing counsel, rather than from within my institution. Unfortunately, it is not a problem that can simply be “overcome”; certainly a sharp retort from an associate on the other side of the “v” is not enough to change someone’s biases or gender issues. Regardless, I find that holding my ground and politely asserting myself with authority is often a good remedy in the moment, to disprove or undermine any gender stereotypes or desired reactions (i.e. many sexist comments are made with the intent to demoralize or reduce confidence or to provoke an angry reaction – do not let them win). It is critical to remember that any communications with opposing counsel may be shown to the court, so maintaining professionalism and being the “adult” in the room is the best strategy possible.

Working in Labor and Employment entails you to occasionally work on gender-motivated cases, do you find that your gender plays a role when working on such cases? Please explain to the extent you are comfortable.

Yes. I find it a useful way to develop empathy with a plaintiff, which can sometimes be hard to do but is so essential to figuring out litigation strategy (especially when it comes to mediation and settlement). Being a woman also helps aid investigations, as victims and witnesses are often more comfortable sharing uncomfortable details with another woman. The same is true in a deposition; a female plaintiff may be more forthcoming to a female attorney.

Branching off of the above question, are there any ‘tips and tricks’ or guidance that you would offer incoming female attorney’s when working on cases involving a gender component?

Do not let personal emotions and experiences interfere with professionalism and objective review of facts, but leverage your shared traits with the Plaintiff where it can be useful, be it in an investigation, a deposition, or even before a jury at trial.

What has your experience been like finding mentors – for instance, do you find that one gender is more open to mentoring versus the other gender, or that there are different benefits to receiving mentorship from certain genders?

It may be unique to my firm, but I found this process to be seamless. I have had mentors – both male and female – emerge naturally through the years. I have also have a male “sponsor” assigned to me, who has been incredibly helpful in my career. I do think that it is useful to find a mentor who both shares and who does not share your gender; a diversity of viewpoints is crucial to development.

Do you feel that being a female in the legal profession impacted your decisions regarding your personal and/or family life? Please explain to the extent you are comfortable.

I resist the assumption that my choices to prioritize having a family is intrinsically “female” – I may have made the same choices as a male – but I certainly prioritized finding a firm and a practice area that enables me to dedicate a portion of my time to building a family. I find that the relative predictability of employment law lends itself more easily to also managing a robust family life.

From your experience, do you think a law firms gender diversity statistics and/or commitment to gender empowerment (through programming, mentoring, funding, etc.) makes a big enough difference that current law students, or associates looking to transfer, should add it to the list of factors to be considered when weighing their available job and firm options?

Absolutely. Ask about the initiatives available, the parental leave policies, and the flextime policies – and if they exist, ask to speak to someone who actually uses them to see how they work in practice. Make sure they talk the talk and walk the walk.

Based on your own experiences, what advice would you offer to female graduates planning to enter a large law firm, or pursue a career path similar to your own?

Stand up for yourself and support your female colleagues. If you speak with confidence and address issues directly but professionally when they arise, you will be treated with a great deal of respect. And if your female colleagues are being treated unfairly, becoming their ally and helping them navigate or address the disparity will pay off in dividends when they do the same for you. A big firm can feel like an isolating place until you find your allies and mentors, and those relationships are so crucial to maintaining your happiness as well as your professional development.

Honorable Stella M. Tsai of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas

Hon. Stella Tsai was elected in 2017 to the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. Prior to becoming a judge she served as a business litigation partner at Archer & Greiner, PC’s Philadelphia Office and served as the Chair of Administrative Law at the City of Philadelphia Law Department from 2000-2003, during which time she was responsible for managing a group of attorneys representing child welfare and social service agencies. She is also an adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

During your career have you experienced, or observed, any challenges faced by attorneys or judges that seem unique to the female gender? If so, please explain.

At the state court level, where judges are elected, female judges in Philadelphia might actually outnumber male ones. And, interestingly, our President Judge is a woman (as is the immediate Past President Judge). My predecessors have paved the way for me to realize fully my career as a judge – I cannot say my gender inhibits my work (although as a relatively senior person coming into the position, I don’t take things as personally, and shut down people who act disrespectfully to anyone in the courtroom).

That said, we need to see more women taking the lead in the courtroom. In my own experiences, I have been very pleased to see female partners acting as second chairs to female associates during jury trials – we need more of this type of mentorship.

When handling cases, either as an attorney or as a judge, that have a gender component, do you feel your own gender plays a role, and if so, how do you personally overcome this to best represent your client and/or uphold your duty of neutrality as a  judge?

I call people, mostly men, out on the record or by sidebar when possible if they are acting or speaking in a sexist manner. They do so at their own peril – jurors are savvy and do not respond well to sexist behavior. While jurors will follow facts, why make it more work for them to get to the correct result?

Both within the US and internationally there is a tendency for judges to be Caucasian males; examining your own career path and time as a judge, how, if at all, did the industries racial and gender norms impact you, and/or what steps did you take to ensure your success in a male-dominated field.

Not in Philadelphia! But it is true that I am only the third APA Judge in the entire Commonwealth of Philadelphia state court. I felt compelled to run, in part, so that someone with my perspective is represented on the bench and takes on the responsibility to the public.

Have you ever had your position, advice, or work degraded, questioned, or mansplained, because of your gender – whether by a coworker, client, or party appearing before you – and, if so, what advice would you offer to other similarly situated women?

I can’t count the number of times my position or proposal was ignored but later adopted when a guy said the very same thing. Of course, when you call them out on it people think you’re being petty. Making speeches generally only sounds good in your own head.

My advice is to seize the moment when it happens. Let’s give our colleagues the benefit of the doubt – perhaps they didn’t hear you and you should try to reiterate your point. Also, advocate for each other. If you observe someone attempting to steal someone else’s thunder, just point out what happened (nicely of course, because we must). Most of all, try not to let your ego drive your decisions. Maybe a male takes your idea, but guess what? Let him have it. He doesn’t have your brain, which will generate other ideas that he won’t have access to!

In your own words, what do you think the most challenging aspect of being a female in the legal industry is?

I am not sure if it’s a woman thing or a man thing, but I much prefer an esprit de corps that is driven to achieve collectively the best outcome for a client. While it’s plausible in the private sector, it’s hard to monetize.

In what ways, if any, did your legal career impact or influence your decisions regarding your personal or family life? Please explain to the extent you are comfortable. Likewise, if you are comfortable, and if you have children, is there any advice you could offer to young females relating to balancing a family with a legal career?

I did the part-time partner thing and was named as a partner at a firm in which I left for a job at The City in the early 2000s. Times have changed. The economy has changed. You will never go wrong if you put your family first. But most importantly, do what works for you – for instance, in my family, we put a lot of money into good daycare really early. Bonus? Our children learned socialization skills and acquired immunity from most common colds (and immunization shots too, of course).

Don’t be too hard on yourself or other members of your family, and try not to over-schedule your lives – unless that’s what you want. Support your kids’ passions; not what you think they should be passionate about. It goes so fast.

Looking back at your career, what advice would you offer to women entering the legal field, or interested in becoming a judge at some point in their career?

Do your best to practice good behavior. It will serve you well.

Answers provided by an anonymous adjunct professor and attorney in the public interest sector

At BARBRI we respect people’s privacy so we never push participants to reveal their identity. That said, we do ask that you not read into an individual’s decision to remain anonymous – often these decisions stem from a complex balancing of employer policies, time constraints, and/or professional and personal decisions to remain neutral or out of the spotlight.

Is there any advice that you received throughout your career on how to succeed that you found particularly useful, or alternatively, useless?

The most useful advice I received was that your relationships with other attorneys, opposing counsel, co-workers, and others, are really important. Of course your relationships with your peers are important, but so are your relationships with everyone from the clerk at the courthouse, to the judge trying your case. It’s important to maintain your professionalism with everyone you interact with during your career because your reputation is important –  in fact, it’s the most important thing.

During law school, I knew that your reputation was important, but I don’t think I truly understood what that meant until I practiced law – it’s not just your “reputation” per se but also maintaining relationships with people who might be useful to you in the future and making sure you invest time in those relationships and act appropriately with those individuals (i.e. mentors, future possible employers, current or future possible clients, etc.).

What were some of the biggest challenges relating to your gender that you’ve faced throughout the course of your legal career, and how have you managed to overcome those obstacles?

Being taken seriously by opposing counsel, and at times even my own clients, was a huge challenge, especially when I was younger. For example, early in my career I did a lot of litigation on family law matters, which were often emotional issues that led clients to want the “best” attorney; I think being faced with a twenty-five-year-old female attorney, clients didn’t take me seriously. Often I think clients lacked confidence in the fact that I knew what I was doing, or that I would be able to zealously advocate for them.

In terms of overcoming those challenges, I think being not just prepared, but over-prepared was useful to instill confidence in my clients, and with opposing counsel, to prove that I knew what I was doing.

The public interest sector is seen as being somewhat more gender-neutral, how have you perceived the gender divide in the sector, and is there any advice you would offer to women looking to pursue public interest?

While it’s true that there’s more women in public interest, I do still think that there’s misogyny in the industry. Part of the challenge is that many public interest attorneys fail to understand that they are operating in a world where there are biases against women. Likewise, because a lot of attorneys in public interest think of themselves as progressive individuals working to create a more equitable world, there’s a tendency for them to conclude that they are therefore immune from bias against women or people of color in their actions. To this end, I think public interest organizations and attorneys could benefit from more training and space for reflection about how we treat women in the workplace (i.e. considering whether there are pay disparities).

Many people assume (often incorrectly) that public interest is less time-intensive than other areas of the law, and therefore is more conducive to maintaining a balance between work and an individual’s family, academic, professional, or personal interests and commitments; what has your experience been in this regard?

It’s not necessarily the case that public interest is less time-intensive, but it does depend on where you land. In my experience, a lot of public interest attorneys work long hours, though maybe not as many as a new associate at a firm. I also think there’s a tendency among public interest attorneys – because a lot of them feel so invested in their work – to spend a lot of time on cases, and potentially more time then they necessarily should, rather than having a more balanced lifestyle; often this imbalance between work and personal life causes public interest attorneys to burn out. Likewise, in public interest organizations that aren’t run well, it’s very easy to overburden yourself or feel like you need to take on more than a reasonable amount of work.

As a professor, what do you think the benefit of diversity in a professorship in law schools that have been traditionally dominated by white males is?

Personally, I believe there is a tremendous benefit to students in having a diversity of backgrounds and opinions from professors because it will help them when they’re attorneys. Not all of your clients will be the same, so having to deal with different styles and backgrounds from professors in law school will help spark creativity, help you think about problem-solving in different ways, and open your mind to the different concerns and priorities that people may have depending on their background and life situations.

Have you ever faced disrespect, belittling, mansplaining, unprofessionalism or similar acts as a result of your gender, and what is your recommended approach when faced with such conflicts?

Yes, but handling such conflicts is truly situational. As women we learn from a young age to not complain or make a big deal out of sexual harassment, belittling by men, or not being taken seriously because of our gender. In your professional life, it’s challenging because you have to be careful about when you speak up, and how – context really matters.

When I advise clients about sexual harassment I tell them not just about their legal options, but also what reality looks like – for instance, I have them consider what the universe of other jobs looks like for them personally; if their employer is going to effectively blacklist them if they take action, or; if they have better options. It’s unfortunately not as simple as making a complaint to a supervisor, or directly to the individual responsible for the behavior.

Based on your own experiences in the legal profession, what advice would you offer women entering the industry, and/or those seeking to follow a career path similar to your own?

Generally, I would recommend that you find a couple of mentors and develop and maintain relationships with them. When thinking of mentors, I think that while it’s important to network, it’s more important to make individual relationships. Aside from mentors, I would also recommend that you maintain your relationships with your friends from law school and beyond. Having a group of people to commiserate with as a new attorney is important, and even later in your career, it’s helpful to have a sounding board for your questions.

As a woman, I would stress the importance of maintaining your relationships outside of work – especially if/when you have children. In today’s world, women generally still bear the brunt of household labor, managing child schedules, and other things relating to the home, so maintaining strong relationships with those in your ‘village’ (i.e. neighbors, daycare workers, other parents, etc.) is really important because it provides you with a support system should you need assistance with your childrearing or household responsibilities.

Sharon Eckstein, an expert mediator, ADR professional and member of the Penn Law School clinical faculty

Ms. Eckstein has been a mediator for the past 20 years and is a current member of a variety of mediation panels, including the American Arbitration Association and the EEOC. In addition to her private mediation practice which focuses on employment, workplace and family disputes, she has served as a mediator with the Philadelphia and Chester County Family Courts, as well as the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Attorney Fee Dispute Program. She is a board member with the National Association for Community Mediation and former chair of the Lower Merion Human Relations Commission. Prior to entering the ADR field, Ms. Eckstein practiced as a family law attorney, and has experience working in the public interest sector as a staff attorney at the Philadelphia Volunteers for the Indigent Program, and the Philadelphia Child Support Project.

Prior to becoming an expert mediator, you practiced as a family law attorney, and worked in public interest, did you ever feel that your gender impacted you professionally or influenced your career decisions?

My gender did not influence my initial career decisions. When I was in law school, half of my classmates were female and there were a significant number of women in the legal field. However, once in private practice, I noticed how my generation of female attorneys differed from those who came before us; they were trailblazers and many had been forced to make decisions in order to succeed. I benefited from their sacrifices. Yet, since I began practice with a different mindset, one that assumed I would be treated equally and not experience roadblocks based on gender, I was less willing to make similar sacrifices.  Perhaps this is why I found it challenging to find female mentors. Once I began practicing as a family law attorney I noticed how gender did impact my professional life. I represented both men and women and was able to see how clients’ gender expectations were projected on to me – Did men retain me because they felt I could negotiate with their female partners more effectively? Did women retain me because they felt they would be better understood by a woman? I rarely hear discussion about how gender differences or similarities may impact client representation and I think it would be helpful to have such conversations. Practicing law, especially in the family context (which includes a wide range of issues from adoption to divorce and more,) requires awareness that gender does influence us. I think attorneys and mediators need to reflect upon the impact that gender may be playing in any given dispute.

I think my desire to scale down my work life when raising children has greatly impacted my professional life. Although parenting decisions affect both genders, more women than men opt to choose prioritizing family over profession. There are consequences to this choice – I have found it more challenging than I expected to return to professional practice.

Looking back at your career, have there been any surprising challenges that you’ve had to overcome relating to your gender? If so, please explain. If not, do you attribute that to anything specific – i.e. company policies, mentors, etc.

One surprising challenge has been the inability or unwillingness of the legal profession to embrace a more varied way of meaningful employment (part-time, work from home, etc.) and an unspoken questioning of the legal abilities and qualifications of those who are able to choose to opt-out of full-time practice. It is more difficult than I expected to return to a full-time professional life. Another interesting experience is realizing how other attorneys perceive and classify certain practice areas (family, employment, public interest)  as ones requiring “soft skills.’ This also seems to be code for “not as capable as someone who has a commercial or corporate practice.” Is it a coincidence that many of these practice areas are ones with higher percentages of female practitioners?  The legal profession seems to place attorneys in boxes – once in a specific practice area you must stay there – rather than realizing that people’s skills are often transferable.

Traditionally ADR was male-dominated, but has increasingly become more diverse, would you describe the industry as gender-neutral and/or gender-friendly, and did that factor influence your decision to pursue it, or alternatively, have you felt its impact during the course of your work?

I am not sure if I agree that traditionally ADR was male-dominated.  I do think that certain ADR practice areas have been and currently remain male-dominated. ADR practice has many practice areas and they at times are parallel and not overlapping – I notice how mediation has female representation but I think arbitration still seems to be dominated by men. When seasoned lawyers and judges shift their focus into ADR they tend to stay in their practice area so areas of the law that are more male-dominated lead to ADR practice areas that are more male-dominated. The toolkit of a mediator and the skill set of an arbitrator can be transferable amongst practice areas.  In order to diversify the ADR field and making it more representative of the community at large – and this means along gender, age, race, sexual orientation – ADR training and skills must be viewed as less legal practice subject matter based and seen for what they are which is a distinct set of capabilities to enable you to serve as a neutral.

While working as a family law attorney, in public interest, and/or as a mediator, have you ever felt like your ability to secure, or be respected by clients and colleagues within your industry, was impacted by your gender – whether positively or negatively? Please explain.

No, I have not felt that my gender prevented me from securing the respect of clients and colleagues nor have I found my gender identity advantaged me in gaining this respect.  I have become a practitioner who can celebrate who I am- which means I am multifaceted, I am a woman, I have gone from full-time to part-time and back again, I have legal practice areas that are relational and thus perceived by some as “soft” or “less complex.

What has your experience been liking finding female mentors versus male mentors – for instance, do you find one gender, generally speaking, to be more approachable or open to mentoring. Based on those experiences, do you have a preference for same-gendered mentors, different-gendered mentors, or no preference at all, and why?

Immediately following law school graduation, I relied upon my former Penn Law Legal Clinic supervisor (she had been a public interest legal services attorney) as a resource and she was very helpful. Having a pre-existing working relationship with her made it easy for me to reach out to her. My initial mediation training was with a male team of mediators whom I also found to be very helpful to me when I began my ADR practice. I believe that it is less about the gender of your mentor than it is about finding someone who you feel comfortable with and then not being shy to ask for support and assistance. I would also urge law students to stay in touch with any faculty with whom they are close following graduation – they are often willing and able to provide mentorship.

Do you feel that being a female in the legal profession impacted your decisions regarding your personal and family life? Please explain to the extent you are comfortable.

It’s harder than publicized to find meaningful and manageable part-time work as an attorney.  I have noticed that many who want to be home when children are young or who want more of a family life end up leaving law. And the vast majority of those who make this choice are women.

Based on your own experiences, what advice would you offer to female graduates wishing to enter your field or pursue a similar career path?

The good news is that ADR is utilized by attorneys in almost every practice area. Whatever your subject matter expertise you can acquire mediation and arbitration training and ultimately serve as a neutral. Register for mediation training, take ADR related CLE courses, join your local bar association’s ADR section, join the ABA Dispute Resolution Section. I recommend contacting your local community mediation center for both training and volunteering – you will be helping your community while developing your mediation skills.

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