It Is Time for Law Firm Leadership to “Lean In”

Susan Smith BlakelyToday we’re delighted to welcome back Susan Smith Blakely, author of the Best Friends at the Bar book series. Today she is discussing the “Lean In” mentality and what it really means for women in law careers. Welcome Back, Susan!


“Lean In,” coined by Sheryl Sandberg of Google and Facebook fame, has become the catch phrase for women professionals to get serious about their careers.  It has spawned book clubs and generated talking point for women who are yearning to get ahead in their careers.  However, leaning in by women professionals, especially women lawyers in private practice who are burdened with billable hours, has not worked effectively.  Most women lawyers I know have leaned in to the extent of falling over on their faces or have leaned in to the exclusion of families and children and become jaded about the sacrifice.  There has to be a new approach.

That new approach is for the law firm leadership to get engaged.  They, too, must get serious about retaining the talent that women lawyers represent and advancing them to positions of leadership and management.  And, it is not for all of the reasons you have heard before.

The arguments advanced for law firm leadership to get serious about the challenges that women lawyers face have not been effective in the past.  The arguments have been about fairness and equity and treating women differently than men because women bare the greatest responsibilities for home and family.  Most of the appeals involve concepts of entitlement, and it has fallen on deaf ears.

The better approach is to appeal to the business bottom lines of law firms.  Women lawyers should be making the case for improved client development opportunities through increased diversity, improved law firm succession opportunities through retaining talent and strengthening the middle levels of law firms, and improved law firm management through a greater percentage of women on leadership and management teams.  Law firms are a business, and we should be approaching them as businesses and making business sense.  That is what law firm leadership understands, and we need to start speaking their language.

That is exactly what I do in my new book, Best Friends at the Bar:  Top-Down Leadership for Women Lawyers (Wolters Kluwer/Aspen Publishers 2015).  This third book in the Best Friends at the Bar series is the perfect bookend to the first two books, which focused on the responsibilities of women lawyers to achieve success and satisfying careers.  Those books explored “Personal Definitions of Success” and the new balance for women lawyers to help them continue in their careers in some manner to get through the challenging years of childcare and other family responsibilities.  It was an excellent start at addressing the work-life challenges and the challenges inherent in a male-dominated profession, but it was not enough.  Those books have helped many young women understand their chosen profession and how to cope with the challenges for women lawyers, but now it is time to address the elephant in the room.

That elephant, of course, is the law firm itself.  Unless the law firm leadership is willing to take retention rates and advancement of women lawyers seriously, everyone will suffer the consequences.  The young women lawyers will suffer as they continue to leave a profession they invested with a great deal of personal time and financial resources.  The law firms will suffer because their competition has figured out that the time for diversity is now and that clients are demanding it, and the law profession will suffer because best practices require diverse approaches to problems by diverse decision makers.

My new book addresses it all.  Here is what you will learn in Best Friends at the Bar:  Top-Down Leadership for Women Lawyers:

  • Why Women Lawyers Leave;
  • Why Law Firms Should Care;
  • Who the Millennial Lawyers Are and Why Law Firm Leaders Do Not Understand Them;
  • What Needs to Be Included in a Successful Program to Address the Special Challenges for Women Lawyers;
  • Why Law Firm Leadership is Important and What Makes an Effective Law Firm Leader; and
  • The Content of Critical Conversations for Leading and Retaining Women in the Law Profession.

AND …  you will get checklists to initiate the conversations between law firm leaders and young women lawyers.  This is what the young lawyers need to know and what the seasoned leaders need to know how to tell them.

The messages of this book are respectful and engaging, but no holds are barred.  The case for the retention of women lawyers and the positive relationship to the future of the legal profession is clear.

It is all about leadership — effective leadership.  Women lawyers bring values to the work place that are different from their male colleagues, and women need to be led differently than men.  Law firm leadership has failed to make that distinction, and the results are reflected in the high attrition rates.  But, it is not solely a gender difference.  For the most part, law firms are not leading very effectively, not for women and not for men.  Leadership is hard work, and it has been ignored for too long.

Effective leadership involves recognizing bad leadership traits and behaviors and doing something to improve them.  That is what my most recent research and the new book are all about — improving leadership and reaping the benefits.  It is a win-win for everyone.

Reading the Best Friends at the Bar books and passing those messages and lessons on to your colleagues and mentees is more than worthy of your time.  It is critical to your survival in a demanding profession and to your professional satisfaction.  I also invite you to join me on my website blog at and subscribe to my monthly Best Friends at the Bar newsletter.   I encourage you to buy the books directly from the website and become a Best Friend at the Bar.

Together we can raise the retention rates and advance women in the profession for the benefit of all.   I would love to have you join me in that pursuit.

Susan Smith Blakely is the Founder of LegalPerspectives LLC and an award-winning, nationally-recognized author, speaker and consultant on issues related to young women lawyers, young women law students and young women interested in careers in the law.  She is author of Best Friends at the Bar:  What Women Need to Know about a Career in the Law (Wolters Kluwer/Aspen Publishers 2009), and Best Friends at the Bar:  The New Balance for Today’s Woman Lawyer (Wolters Kluwer Law & Business 2012), which addresses the work-life struggle for women lawyers and includes twelve profiles of women who have successfully transitioned from one practice setting to another.  Her new book, Best Friends at the Bar:  Top-Down Leadership for Women Lawyers, focuses on the responsibilities of law firm leaders and was released by Wolters Kluwer Law & Business in July 2015.

Ms. Blakely frequently speaks at colleges and universities, law schools, law firms and law organizations, and she has been featured in media, including the LA Daily Journal, National Jurist, Washington Examiner Newspaper, Forbes Woman, DC Spotlight, Daily Muse and Huffington Post Business.  Ms. Blakely also is a frequent guest speaker and panelist at conferences on women’s issues and the law profession, and she has been a featured speaker at the US Department of Justice, Civil Division.  She is the recipient of the Ms. JD 2015 “Sharing Her Passion Award” for her work on behalf of women in the law.

Ms. Blakely graduated from the University of Wisconsin with distinction and from Georgetown University Law Center where she taught legal research and writing. She is a member of the CoachSource global network of leadership coaches and a career coach for the Indiana University Marshall Goldsmith Leadership Development and Executive Coaching Academy.   For more information, please visit

Read On:

Looking for more advice about jobs after law school? Check out these posts:

Want more career-related advice sent to you? Make sure you’re on The Girl’s Guide email list! You can sign up here today.


Concerned about your law school grades? Get the feedback and support you need to succeed.

Check out our law school tutoring options at the Law School Toolbox.

Get started, and ensure you’re spending your time wisely!

Got a question? Drop us a line. We’re here to help!

Speak Your Mind