In seven years of writing this blog, I have turned down all offers of a guest post. Nothing personal, I have always wanted “Ten Things” to just be my thoughts. Today, I make an exception. Why? Because I think this is an incredibly important topic – one I have wanted to write about but knew I could never pull off. At its core, blog writing has to ring true and be based on experience or expertise to provide value. As a middle-aged, white guy, who grew up in Nebraska, I cannot write effectively about this topic. But my guest writer can. In fact, she writes the hell out of it. Still, I can say that I have seen firsthand much of what she sets out and 100% endorse what she is talking about. So, pay attention. If you are a woman, take these points to heart. If you are a man, do the same – maybe more so. It truly matters.
I have been fortunate enough to work for and with many great female executives, especially lawyers. I not only admire them for their brains, insights, and work ethic, but for their ability to find a way through the many obstacles that stand in their way, from outright misogyny to dealing with the disproportionate share of child care. My oldest daughter will start graduate school in the fall and my youngest daughter is at the University of Texas Law School, and I want both to have every opportunity to succeed in the business world on their merits. I hope they both turn out a lot like Talia whom I have known for a while now and already believe has more insight, ability, and talent than I had when I first became general counsel. I know you will agree and I hope that you will share this post with everyone you know.
I am excited and pleased that this edition of “Ten Things” discusses what you need to know as a woman in-house lawyer.
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. 
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%. 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.
2. Doing good work is not enough. Another common frustration among women I’ve worked with over the years is the utter surprise and dismay that comes after a decade of being total heads down workhorses, only to lift their heads up ready for that partner or general counsel promotion and discover that all that great work they did was not enough. For reasons I can’t explain, business development and self-marketing and promotion come more naturally to men, and I for one was for many years totally naïve as to how much this matters, especially in-house. Law firms tend to be a little more of a meritocracy; among a bunch of lawyers, everyone knows who is good at their job and who isn’t. But still, to make it to partner, you have to have contacts. You have to have relationships. The fact that you can draft a purchase agreement better than anyone else is largely irrelevant. In-house this gets even harder – no one outside the legal team really understands what it is you do. Your business team is definitely not reading your contracts to see how you cleverly inserted a backdoor warranty. They’re not tracking how many hours you’ve “billed.” Your business team cares about things like speed, simplicity, volume of turned contracts, number of deals closed. And they won’t know much about any of the foregoing unless you actually tell them. When I first started in my current role, I absolutely worked my tail off. The legal department was understaffed and overworked, and there was virtually zero understanding across the company as to the sheer volume of work that was coming through the department and the Herculean feats we were pulling off each day, not to mention the generally high standard of quality we adhered to throughout that time. So we started generating quarterly reports. The reports were short and simple, and highlighted:
- Significant successes in that quarter, such as big deals we helped close or new initiatives or training that we rolled out,
- A number of impactful statistics, such as number of matters handled, number of patents filed, average contract turnaround time, etc., and
- A report pulled from our contract management system that optically provided a sense of the sheer volume of stuff we were doing for the company.
Lo and behold, the positive feedback started pouring in, awareness of how much value the legal team was adding across the company became top of mind, and recognition and reward (including, critically, support for hiring more headcount) followed. Now, were those reports a total administrative time suck? Yep. But were they the most awesome legal department marketing material ever and did they yield the results we wanted? Double yep!
3. Business development skills matter. In the vein of “doing good work is not enough,” women need to know more about business development. At a law firm, this means potential clients. In-house, it is every single person who works at your company, or at least, those who you work with on a regular basis or whose opinions of you matter. As noted, no business person is going to say, “wow, her drafting skills are just sensational.” But they will remember if you showed up at a happy hour, were easy to talk to, and had a fun chat about bungee jumping or traveling to Mexico. They will also remember if you spent the time getting to know what their business needs are and how you can support them. Generally speaking, business people think lawyers are obstacle-throwing bottleneckers. Taking advantage of more social settings like company lunches or happy hours to break down barriers and drive home your business-focused mindset will create a lasting and meaningful impression on your business clients. I used to avoid attending company events (when that was actually a thing pre-COVID) because I had too much other work to get done and trying to make small talk with people I had nothing in common with and struggle to find ice breakers felt both awkward and “salesman-y.” But those little conversations are where, eventually, I found commonalities and over time built trust, which really is the foundation of any good business relationship. It also gave me a chance to remind my clients of how much value I add, like the reports noted above, and note the theme here, communicating your value is part of the purpose of a number of the things in this ten things list. I’m not suggesting you go to a happy hour and boast about how awesome you are, but dropping little comments like, “yeah I was thrilled we were able to close that deal in three days” is the kind of thing you want your business clients to know about. And, chances are, if you don’t seize the opportunity to tell them, they won’t know. The other thing about business development is that it takes practice – lots of practice – and it becomes more important as you grow more senior. So start practicing now.
4. Apply for that job that you think you’re only half qualified for. I’ll keep this one short. Men do this all the time. Seriously, that’s just fact. There are loads of studies on the subject, men tend to happily apply for jobs they’re underqualified for, while women typically only apply for jobs they’re overqualified for. Why? There are all sorts of theories that we could discuss at length, but the point is, just go for it. The worst that can happen is that you get a “no” (see No. 10 below) or no response at all. So what? The best that can happen is that you get an offer for your dream job, and we end up with more women at the big kid table.
5. Take business and finance courses. Man, do I wish someone had told me this back in undergrad. Instead, I took incredibly useful courses such as anthropology and philosophy. The reality is, if you plan to work as in-house counsel anywhere in corporate America, you need to know the nuts and bolts of finance and accounting. Not only will this make you more effective in representing your company and really understanding the business, but it also increases your ability to be a part of the business discussions. As a lawyer, you are trained to think about things differently from your business counterparts around the table, and that’s a good thing. If you equip yourself with some basic business fundamentals, that combined with your practiced logic and pragmatism can be pretty powerful.
6. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good a/k/a it’s okay to be wrong. Okay, so we get paid to give sound advice, yes. We can all agree that consistently being wrong in giving legal advice is not a good thing. To do your job well you must provide a high standard of quality in your legal work and, if you have people who report to you, expect the same of your team. But you also can’t guarantee, without countless hours of research and checking and double-checking every minute detail, that you will be 100% right every time, and most in-house counsel simply don’t have enough hours in the day for that. Perfection is a goal that is seldom obtained in any endeavor, and particularly not in an in-house law department where a handful of overworked lawyers are trying to do the job of double that number. Not only is that not the goal in-house, but most business people will tell you that’s also not even on their list. Striving for perfection often means slowing a deal down to eliminate all risk and you just can’t do business without some risk (not to mention the old adage that time kills all deals). A little risk can be a good thing, both for the business and for you individually. If perfection is the standard you set for yourself before you feel comfortable opening your mouth or making a call, you will be silent a lot, and your male colleagues will get to do all the talking (and they won’t always be 100% right either). Instead, focus on speed and material risk, and speak up or make the call before your male colleagues beat you to it. For some reason, this is often harder for women (presumably the same reason that makes it harder for women to go for those jobs that they’re not 100% qualified for, and so on). It’s critical not to let your fear of being wrong paralyze you and prevent you from being the mover and shaker that you want to be. The goal is good enough. Next.
7. You do not have to be a superhero. Apropos being “good enough.” I remember when I got pregnant with my first child, a male partner at my law firm gave me a copy of the book Leaning In, by Sheryl Sandberg, kindly thinking he was doing me a favor. But reading that book just made me angry (sorry Sheryl, I do love you). At the time, my takeaway from the book was, I have to lean in more, do more, be more. For anyone who has worked at a big law firm and/or is a mom, they know those are two full-time jobs. You’re leaning in so dang far that you’re pretty much upside down. Don’t get me wrong, I admire Sheryl Sandberg greatly, but here’s the thing: women lawyers generally trend towards perfectionist conscientious super hard workers. They’re already leaning in. Unless you’re a superhero, like Sheryl, at some point you’re just going to keel over. Fortunately, you don’t have to be a superhero. Over the years I’ve spoken with many highly successful lawyers who have admitted (under anonymity and pain of death) that sometimes they block a chunk of time on their calendar that says “Meeting” and use it to take a mental health break. Because most successful lawyers tend to trend to the workaholic end of the spectrum, no one wants to openly admit it – but it’s part of how you survive those times when you’re pulling all-nighters. So lower the bar for yourself just a tad and feel good about it. It’s okay to screen that 7:00 pm phone call sometimes and hang out with your kids, or your dog, or yourself. Or take a day off for some self-care. Self-care? If you just laughed out loud at that statement, guess what – you need this more than you realize. Take a PTO day and shamelessly spend a day on just you. The work will still be there tomorrow.
8. Fake it till you make it (at least a little). Men are so darn good at this. When I was a baby lawyer, I remember listening in awe to my follow first-year male colleagues opine at great length on topics I knew nothing about. I would think to myself, “How on earth do they know all this? I don’t know anything. Maybe I shouldn’t be here, maybe it’s a mistake and any minute they’re going to realize they hired me by accident and I’m not smart enough to be here.” Now, did these guys actually know what they were talking about? Nope. No first-year associate knows anything about anything. Did they nevertheless grab the mic and convey total confidence in their knowledge of the subject? You betcha. Over the years, I have watched this play out time and time again, in negotiations, pitches, board meetings. Now, clearly, these men know something. But nobody knows everything. What guys tend to do really well in these situations is take what little knowledge they have on a subject and then utterly bluster their way through the rest, with total confidence, until you’re convinced they’re an expert. When is the last time you saw a woman stand up in a meeting and utterly bluster? The reality is, they generally don’t. Women tend to not want to speak up if they don’t feel 100% confident that they’re right in what they’re about to say (see No. 6 above). I’m not suggesting that you pretend to know an area of the law that you don’t and put your company at risk – don’t do that. What I’m talking about is intentionally acting confident, even if you don’t feel it. When I first moved in-house after years of being highly specialized at a law firm, I suddenly found myself being asked questions on a wide variety of matters – employees, litigation, IP, arbitration. What did I know about any of this? Nadda. Was my first inclination to freeze like a deer in headlights, confess to everyone that I had no idea what I was doing and didn’t know anything? Totally. But that wouldn’t have worked out well. So I would quickly give myself an internal pep talk, that I’d done well enough in law school and Big Law to land my current role and so surely I must be smart enough to find the right answer, even if I didn’t know it at that moment. And then I would look at my inquiring colleague with total (faked) confidence and say with a smile, “let me look into that and I’ll follow up with you.” Then I’d scramble to go research the answer, urgently call my expert outside counsel, or whatever. To be blunt, your business team doesn’t want to hear that their in-house counsel has no idea what they’re doing (or at least, feels that way). They want to hear that you’ve got it. So tell them you’ve got it, and then go do your job and figure it out.
9. Seek out a mentor. Having a good mentor can have a significant impact on your overall success, particularly if you are new to in-house or heading up your legal department with no lawyers above you. While both men and women benefit from mentorships, finding a good mentor tends to be a harder task for women, for two key reasons:
- First of all, it’s natural for women to want to seek out women mentors, but as women go up in the ranks of corporate America their numbers shrink dramatically. So there are just fewer women mentors out there.
- Second, since corporate America is male-dominated, many of the male-to-male mentorships tend to happen organically – on the golf course, over a beer, talking about sports, etc., which means that non-golf playing/beer drinking/sports-loving women (like me) must instead be intentional in seeking out their mentors – and this is hard – see No.1, i.e., women have a hard time asking for what they need, especially if they think it will be an imposition on someone.
So here’s what you need to know about finding a good mentor:
- Be intentional. Look around your company, your community, your industry, and identify women (or men, more on that below) who inspire you or who have the experience and insights you are trying to gain. And then find an opportunity to connect. In the cafeteria, or a company event. If they’re outside the company, email them or call them, and ask if they’d be willing to meet for coffee. It might seem overly simplistic but it really can be that easy, that’s how I found some of my greatest mentors.
- Look beyond women attorneys. While women attorneys may feel like the most natural and comfortable fit, there are many fantastic male attorneys who are great advocates of women and would be delighted to serve in that role for you. Senior men and women in business positions can also be fabulous mentors for women in-house counsel, such as your CFO or COO. As noted above, learning about the business side of the house is really important, and nothing gets you there quicker than having a mentor who is an expert in exactly that.
- Don’t be afraid to ask (see No. 1 above). Being asked to serve as a mentor is both flattering and a privilege. You will typically find people respond positively to being asked to serve in this role, and if they don’t, well, that says a lot more about them than it does about you.
- Pay it back. As you grow more senior in your career, remember to pay it back to younger women attorneys on your team/in the department and try to find the opportunity to be a mentor for others outside the department. Remember, it’s a privilege.
10. Don’t be afraid of “No.” Women are, generally, bigger people-pleasers than men. We can argue over the research on this topic, but in my personal experience, this is a true statement. It’s hard for us to ask for something that we think we may get a “no” to. Men don’t seem to have this problem, at least to the same degree. When we hear a “no”, we feel shame, that hot flush that creeps up your neck and into your cheeks, embarrassment at even daring to ask the question. You know the feeling. Men typically just shrug their shoulders and they’re over it (and therein lies the magic of the singles bar). This is a problem because when climbing the career ladder – or jungle gym, which thanks to Sheryl Sandberg is a concept I’ve truly taken to heart – you often HAVE to get multiple “no’s” before you can get to the one “yes”. This is true when job hunting, applying for a promotion, or asking for something you need. Learn to embrace the word “no”. It’s just a word, but if you’re afraid of it, it may also be that job you never get, that promotion you’re never given, or the raise that never comes. You may have heard the phrase “failure is the secret to innovation” – we embrace this term at my company because it reminds each of us not to be afraid to fail when testing new theories or methods; in fact, that’s what we have to do to eventually find the one method that succeeds. This applies equally to your career. You have to be willing to get 99 no’s to get the one yes. And in the end, that one yes will be the only one that matters anyway.
A few final points about the above. First, the list doesn’t include any of the fundamental “do good work,” “support the business,” etc. commentaries about how to serve as competent in-house counsel. Those are a given. Second, these are my own personal observations about the non-obvious aspects of being a woman and serving as counsel, and I’m speaking generally – there are, of course, outliers on either end of the spectrum. You may disagree with my observations and that’s fine – the importance in my mind is that we have this dialogue at all and drive awareness of the subject. Finally, as Sterling’s blog focuses on being in-house, the list is tailored for in-house counsel, but if you happen to be at a law firm, much of this applies to you well. Thanks again for sharing your blog Sterling (apparently, all I had to do was just ask him) and if anyone would like to connect with me to discuss this further, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
April 15, 2021
Ten Things You Need to Know as In-House Counsel – Practical Advice and Successful Strategies and Ten (More) Things You Need to Know as In-House Counsel – Practical Advice and Successful Strategies Volume 2, are on sale at the ABA website (including as e-books). As the ABA says, “Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are almost here – get them a set of these books!” Trust the ABA – buy the books!
Connect with me on Twitter @10ThingsLegal and on LinkedIn where I post articles and stories of interest to in-house counsel frequently. “Ten Things” is not legal advice nor legal opinion and represents my views only. It is intended to provide practical tips and references to the busy in-house practitioner and other readers. If you have questions or comments, ideas for a post, please contact me at email@example.com.
 2020 Inclusion Index Survey Report, The Minority Corporate Counsel Association, available at: https://www.mcca.com/resources/reports/2020-inclusion-index-survey-report/.