Thought leadership from our experts

Helping Women Build “Careers of Yes”

Building a successful law career often boils down to a single word: Yes.

  • Will you seek to take the lead at key client meetings? Yes.
  • Will you seek out strategic business development opportunities? Yes.
  • Will you write articles and give speeches that are beyond the normal scope of your work? Yes.
  • Will you take on a legal project well beyond the size of your team because your client needs to get it done? Yes.

Young lawyers who want to build a strong legal career need to learn to say yes early and often. Saying yes to opportunities to learn, to take ownership of deals, and to gain exposure to potential clients, influencers and the legal community is critically important to women who want a successful career in law. Beginning your career with yes gets you that much closer to running your own deals or cases, partnership, firm management responsibilities and becoming a leader in your specialty and the profession at large.

Law firms and their leaders that are committed to diversity also play an important part in helping these women build "careers of yes." Promising legal talent may not only need access to compelling opportunities to say yes, they may also need support to fulfill the resulting obligations confidently.

Supporting "careers of yes"

Signing on to challenging firm legal projects, taking on speaking and writing opportunities and generally meeting and working with new people inside and outside the firm can help women build a solid foundation for their legal careers. Looking back on my own experience, even when I wasn't sure I was ready to take on the opportunities offered to me, I always said yes. In retrospect, many of those opportunities were turning points for my career.

However, women in the legal profession are not always able to generate opportunities to say yes on their own, especially early in their careers. They simply haven't developed the network, reputation or reach to do so. That is why it is up to law firms and their senior partners to make the process of creating and funneling opportunities to promising women less random.

The first step is to identify those women who already have the necessary prerequisites and a baseline of excellence to succeed when they say yes to these opportunities. Firms can also provide developmental goals and guidance to women who are not yet ready to take on opportunities for external exposure and challenging legal assignments but have the potential do so in the future.

Once a firm has identified women who have what is necessary to take on and do well with new opportunities, the next step is to funnel those opportunities to the right people based on their background, capabilities and promise until the women identify and go after these types of opportunities on their own.

Managing a "career of yes"

Building a "career of yes" is a challenge, make no mistake. Not everyone who can help someone's career will be personable or kind. Nor should women evaluate a compelling opportunity on that criteria. Instead, it is much more important to gravitate to senior lawyers in your firm who are doing the best work.

Managing these relationships will in turn help young lawyers to develop their client management skills. By treating these individuals as their most important clients, women can gain important insight into how to manage challenging personalities and busy people to accomplish what needs to be done. Learning to work with these types of people will serve women in the legal profession well as they build and navigate future professional relationships. Ultimately, these relationships and the opportunities they offer are about learning as much as possible from people and building on the resulting knowledge and experiences.

Finding the time to do extra work is never easy but it is often important for anyone who aspires to become well known and respected. One way to make these opportunities as productive as possible is to look for emerging areas to focus their learning and development. In my own career, as a young lawyer I volunteered to attend a meeting about a complex bankruptcy involving issues in which no one in my firm had experience. After a solid weekend of preparation, I was able to obtain a good result for the client and more work. More recently, I took a similar approach when tax inversions started to become a trend. By learning more about the topic and how it could help my clients, I was able to get a strong foothold in that emerging tax specialty.

As lawyers become more experienced and expand their skills, they also need to find ways to gain exposure to new and different audiences that can benefit from this expertise. Sometimes, this means taking on last-minute requests that no one else is willing to do, because the person offering may not come back a second time. And it is always important to understand and acknowledge that each individual needs to decide whether saying yes is worth it.

Paying it forward

At its best, a "career of yes" allows women to help others gain a foothold in the profession. As a generation of women gain experience and exposure by taking on these opportunities we can pay it forward by helping younger women to build their own "careers of yes" in their own firms. At Cadwalader, we have developed our own programs to match up talented people with good opportunities and we monitor how often female associates say "yes" to these opportunities and how well they execute when they do. We expect that associates will say yes to opportunities as often as possible. We double down on this effort by setting the expectation that our most senior partners will also help women in the firm to build "careers of yes," including our firm leader, Pat Quinn, who chairs the firm's diversity oversight committee, which supports these programs. While not every woman in the firm will benefit from–or even take advantage–of our efforts, these programs allow our firm to help our female lawyers to discover and grow their fire for success.

When done well, this approach to helping women build "careers of yes" in the legal profession will yield a compelling crop of female leaders for the next generation. At Cadwalader, two programs stand out. First, we have developed a "sponsorship program" that carefully matches high-potential female attorneys with sponsors drawn from firm leadership. This program takes traditional mentorship programs to the next level by helping to identify compelling opportunities for these women and providing support when they say yes to those opportunities. To ensure that these sponsorships are working for both parties, it is essential to track attorneys' contacts with their sponsors. This can indicate how much effort high-potential associates are putting into getting opportunities to say yes and the work they are doing, and it also ensures that that sponsors are fully committed and doing their part to create a firmwide culture that actively promotes diversity. Over the past several years, Cadwalader has used this approach to prepare female attorneys for partnership, and the results are noteworthy: we have increased the number of female partners, with women representing 40 percent of the newly promoted partners in 2017.

In addition, Cadwalader holds regular "business development boot camps" that provide practice for pitch teams made up of promising female mid-level associates. These teams learn basic networking and business development skills and compete for business against each other in mock pitch sessions and receive direct feedback on their efforts from partners and other senior lawyers.

As other firms adopt this and other approaches, I trust that we will all find new ways to encourage women to fulfill their potential as attorneys and make a mark on the profession. As women embrace the various opportunities that come their way, their unique capabilities can shine throughout their "careers of yes."

Linda Z Swartz chairs the tax group and serves on the Management Committee at Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft LLP. Linda is widely recognized as one of the leading corporate tax lawyers in the US, counseling clients on structuring complex global mergers and acquisitions, spin-offs, joint ventures and restructurings, often including derivative and foreign tax planning strategies. She is very active in legal industry diversity initiatives and is a member of the Oversight Committee of the Cadwalader Center for Diversity & Inclusion.