Legal Practice

Be the Boss: Making Partner

Last weekend I attended a panel sponsored by the Hispanic Lawyers of Association of Illinois and it was amazing. The four women (plus moderator) were full of great advice and experience.  They all work in different sized firms throughout Chicago. Before the talk they shared some stats that are important to keep in mind when it comes to pursuing a career in big law.

First, Latinas still make less than 2%of all US attorneys. We have the lowest rate of law firm partners for any racial/ethnic group (0.4%) and make up only 0.6% of General Counsel  within Fortune 500s. And to round it all up, Latinas make up less than 2% of associates in Big Law firms.

It’s important to know this numbers so you can understand the dynamics that exist when you start your career. The numbers are dismal not because Latinas can’t cut it, but because most of those professional environments are not welcoming and do not often create paths for you to succeed. Going in knowing that it’s an uphill battle will get your mind right about what you need to do.

So with those stats, how will you ever make partner?

The main piece of advice from the panelists was to go in with eyes open about what the work will be like–actively seek out information about the rules, the expectations, figure out who the key people are, and what strategies you’ll need to use to advance.

That means really networking and creating a network of support. One panelist mentioned that we miss out on building support because we fear “bothering” those professionals or that they’ll think we’re “using” them. But that is the nature of networking! I notice that many new attorneys (me included) demure from asking for help from attorneys they clerked for or fail to reach out after networking events. For me, that absolutely stemmed from believing that I was a bother and shouldn’t try to connect with people way ahead in their careers because I had nothing to offer them. But those in the field understand that making connections is part of the industry and you’ll hurt yourself more by not reaching out when you can.

When you get the job, a common refrain was to be cool under pressure. Show how much you enjoy the work you’re doing. Like one of the speakers said, “be the type of lawyer you would hire if you were hiring lawyers.” Put in the extra effort because we already know that for Latinas average won’t cut it. When it comes to being assigned more housework vs. glamour work, call it out but in a collegial way. Say “sure I’ll take notes this time and hey by the way would it be possible for me to jump in on XYZ type of case?” None of these ladies were wall flowers, they were confident and comfortable enough to speak out and advocate for themselves, but know to do so diplomatically and strategically. We have to become comfortable doing that as well. Another big theme was to act like you belong (because you do belong there). That means participate. Join the committees, speak up in meetings, take lead in your projects, and produce quality work.

They also reminded us to be realistic about our prospects. As one said, do you see a path for your goals where you are currently working? Do you see others like you making partner? Is the path to partner something you can achieve in that firm? If not, take your talents elsewhere. And it’s never too early to consider a big goal and work for it, so if you see a few years in that you probably can’t make it there, start looking at options.

An audience member asked an important question about negotiating salary and they had such honest answers. Mainly, as a new attorney, you won’t have that much negotiating power to leverage a higher salary than their original offer. That was stark reality that I’m glad they mentioned. Because (as they reminded the audience), when you’re new you’re going to balance the salary with the experience you’re going to get from this job. It’s years 3-4 where you are worth a lot more and should start looking at what option are available to you (and that’s because by year 3/4 you’re experienced, don’t need a lot of oversight, and won’t cost as much to train).

Overall, these are women who put in the work (two were equity partners and one was a managing partner–all major, major achievements in Big Law land). It was clear that they earned their spot by being diligent, hard workers, who understood the norms of the profession enough to gain sponsors and mentors who in turn went to bat for them. They also weren’t scared to move on or fight for more responsibilities in order to feel fulfilled in their careers. And ultimately, it takes a lot of guts to say I’m a damn good attorney and deserve to make partner in an office where you are very likely the only one that looks and sounds like you. But these ladies did it and they were really clear that you can do it too.