Taking the Lead: Effecting Change in Your Own Career

Last summer, the American Bar Association (ABA) issued a sobering report, First Chairs at Trial, More Women Need Seats at the Table, which exposed the extent to which women are consistently underrepresented in lead counsel and trial counsel positions for most types of litigations. For instance, the report notes that men are three times more likely than women to act in those positions in civil cases. This underrepresentation unfortunately extends beyond the courtrooms of the United States. Last June, the Paris Bar and the France-Amériques Association jointly held a conference in Paris, “Women as Lead Counsel at Trial: What You Can Do to Take the Lead,” echoing the findings of the ABA report. The conference focused on the ways in which women litigators could effect change in their individual careers.

The Vice-Head of the Paris Bar Council, Ms. Dominique Attias, shared some interesting facts:

  • More than half of the students of the Paris Bar School are now women.
  • Women and men are not equally represented across disciplines – for example, in business law and IP matters, lead counsel are mostly men, while in criminal law matters, there are almost no women lead counsel.
  • A third of French women lawyers leave the profession after ten years.

The panelists – who included litigators in private practice, an in-house counsel and a judge – offered a few tips, based on their own experiences, to help women further their careers and achieve leadership roles in litigations, which are good advice regardless of one’s type of practice:

  1. Network and Do Your Own PR
    As one of the panelists jokingly said, “time spent working is time lost for your career.” The panelists noted that, in general, women lawyers devote a lot of energy to doing excellent work, but not enough to showing how good they are. The panelists were unanimous: networking and self-marketing are key. You should market yourself both within your firm and to your peers (as other lawyers might one day refer a case to you if they cannot take it). This not only includes going to conferences and publishing, but also making your profile stand out and choosing the skills you want to highlight (such as relevant work experience, rare languages, or distinctions in a specific field).
  2. Find good mentors
    Mentoring programs are good opportunities to boost your career. The panelists noted that because people are often be more inclined to mentor someone who reminds them of themselves, it is important to find ways of connecting with potential mentors who have been where you currently are in your career and who have succeeded in taking the steps that you would like to follow. This may be done by either initiating a mentor/mentee relationship with a partner you enjoy working with at your firm, or by seeking outside mentoring and coaching.
  3. Be fearless
    The judge on the panel stated clearly that women trial counsel are as good as their male counterparts and should be fearless and confident in their abilities. Confidence begets confidence.
  4. Set your own career path
    The panelists encouraged women to ask for what they want – e.g., a case, a team or a position. If you don’t get what you want, don’t be discouraged. Ask again, or strategically move on to other opportunities. Finally, take an active role in evaluating your current situation and assessing opportunities for career advancement.

Fanny Gauthier is an associate in Debevoise’s Paris office.

Comments? Suggestions? We’d love to hear from you. Send us an email at women@debevoise.com.