Your Career, Leadership Style and Well-Rounded Life: How to Succeed as a Female Litigator
In 2018, I was promoted to partner at Vinson & Elkins. It was an incredible honor. I received gracious notes of congratulations and encouraging words from many of my firm colleagues. Though perhaps some of the most encouraging recognition was from two people outside the firm: accomplished female litigators with whom I was serving as co-counsel on two different cases, one in Pittsburgh and the other in San Antonio. Both of them reached out independently to say how excited they were to read about my promotion.
Not only were these talented litigators serving as champions for my career, they also demonstrated to me how connected we could be, as women lawyers at different firms. Their kind gestures reminded me of the importance of developing a network and finding role models both inside and outside of my firm.
While the road to being a successful female litigator may have its challenges, there are steps to take that can help clear the path.
Be the architect of your career
Upon graduating from law school, it’s essential for young women litigators to thoughtfully consider the skills they will need to succeed. Look for opportunities to gather experience by volunteering for tasks and saying yes to those that may be out of your comfort zone. Be assertive and ask to be involved when you spot an opportunity for stand-up experience. Keep your eyes open for role models. Like the two co-counsel who congratulated me on my partnership, the people you grow to admire and emulate may be outside of your immediate circle.
Work with partners who delegate. As a partner at Vinson & Elkins, I have an opportunity to delegate meaningful work to my associates. Our work product is superior when we use the talent of diverse lawyers, and as a result, our practice becomes stronger.
I have a state court case in Texas where we filed a motion to stay the case. I asked a mid-level associate to argue the motion, though she had never done so before, as I was entrenched on another matter. She took the opportunity and won. When the other side moved to lift the stay a few months later, she argued again, and won that hearing as well.
I remind my associates that they shouldn’t be afraid of failing. We always want to produce an outstanding legal product, but sometimes you don’t get something right the first time you produce it for a partner. When this happens, women can be particularly hard on themselves. It’s important to understand why the mistake was made, learn from it, and pick yourself up and move on. If we can forgive ourselves, yet be persistent in learning and seeking opportunities, we can achieve great things.
Find your own leadership style
How do you motivate your team and how do you work with opposing counsel? Traditionally, we had men as our role models, and we mirrored the behavior that we saw. Today, we have a world of diverse lawyers to learn from, including more women, and alternative work styles to consider. Exposure to a range of lawyers helps in developing a style that works for us. I was fortunate to work with a brilliant Vinson & Elkins litigator, Jennifer Poppe. Jennifer was effective in a subtle way. She was assertive, but never outwardly aggressive, and she was strategic as she helped those who were coming up in the ranks. She often sacrificed high-profile opportunities; instead, she passed them along to associates (including me), allowing us to grow our skill set.
Over the past few years, I’ve developed my own style. My style is collegial rather than combative, and I believe in kindness and constructive criticism when working with my associate teams. In the courtroom, like many women litigators, I find a straightforward demeanor is effective — judges appreciate a clear, carefully crafted approach. You need to be personable — and that only happens when you are being authentic.
A sense of camaraderie and authenticity is vital during intense periods of trial preparation. Ensuring a trial team always takes a break to have dinner together is essential. My team knows my trial-time penchant for fueling myself with M&Ms — a small (but distinctive) vice. I find it’s also important to be respectful of, and cordial with, opposing counsel. Others in the courtroom may have different agendas, but they are part of the process in which we each play a role.
Cultivate a well-rounded life
There are numerous studies about the pressure-filled legal profession and lawyers’ struggle with mental illness. As lawyers, we need to pay attention to those things that keep us and our colleagues on an even keel.
I encourage those who work with me to maintain their hobbies and friendships outside of work. It makes us better practitioners and happier people. Women often experience extra pressure, as they may have more care-taking responsibilities at home, so it’s essential they carve out “me” time.
Being well-rounded means being a part of the fabric of the firm and the outside world. I love Pilates and in 2014, became a certified instructor. I taught professionally for many years, and also teach Pilates to those within the firm. I like knowing that I can help others to focus on their well-being, and I know physical activity is imperative during times of stress. I take Pilates sessions a few times each week. Doing so means I am off-line, and I can’t be distracted. It helps me keep a sense of balance in my own life.
I hope that by sharing some of my Pilates experience with the firm, it’s made me more approachable. By appearing on Zoom in my home office, dressed in athleisure, with my cat at my side, I hope to be a different kind of role model — relatable and real.
Reprinted with permission from the “MARCH 8, 2022 edition of the “TEXAS LAWYER”© 2022 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited, contact 877-257-3382 or email@example.com.
This information is provided by Vinson & Elkins LLP for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended, nor should it be construed, as legal advice.