Q: How did you break into what many consider to be an old boys’ network?
A: In everything I have done, I have always tried to do my best, and as a result, I have a proven track record within the firm. I do good work, and I maintain good relationships with my clients, judges, co-counsel and partners.
Coming up through the ranks, I refused to interpret comments as sexist, and refused to be relegated to second-class citizen status. I always proceeded as if I had as much of a right to be there as anyone else.
That being said, I also had the extraordinary support of several senior attorneys as I came up through the ranks of the firm — including men. I was mentored, welcomed and championed by those who supported me and my efforts.
Q: What are the challenges of being a woman at a senior level within a law firm?
A: One of the biggest challenges is overcoming the perception that there is an old-boys’ network. Women are too willing to buy into the notion that they are shut out because they are women, and react to that perception. As women, we can’t be afraid to champion ourselves, and to use our voices to promote ourselves and our accomplishments. Often in the face of failure it is easy to blame gender, when really we have to look inside and face other failings.
In the case where true sexual discrimination is occurring, you absolutely must speak up, particularly if the discrimination is not against you, but another woman in your organization. In situations where there may be inadvertent bias rather than blatant sexism, however, try instead to turn it into a teachable moment.
As a midlevel associate, I worked very closely with a senior partner on an important case,
preparing our client’s CEO and other executives for depositions. This was great exposure to the client for me, and it was important that the partner trust me with every aspect of the preparation. Now, this partner was known to make politically incorrect comments — not to women he worked with, but, for example, about the top female actresses of the day. One day, he acknowledged that he perceived treating women equally in the workplace meant that he could talk in front of me the same way that he could talk in front of any other male associate or colleague. This, to him, meant that he could comment on Linda Fiorentino’s “performance” in The Last Seduction even if I was sitting in his office. Because I didn’t overreact, I was able to gently educate him (over time, granted) on better ways to communicate with his colleagues — both men and women. We maintained a great working relationship and he became one of my biggest supporters when I needed him.
Finally, all attorneys, men and women alike, also have to learn the value of living a balanced life
— not just work vs. family, but also self vs. others, and patience vs. pacing.
“One of the biggest challenges is overcoming the perception that there is an old-boys‟ network. Women are too willing to buy into the notion that they are shut out because they are women, and react to that perception.”
Q: Describe a time you encountered sexism in your career and tell us how you handled it.
A: I was a very young associate, working as part of a three-person team preparing exhibits for an upcoming trial. Both the senior attorney and the other young associate on my team were men. As we worked to prepare the documents and generally prep for trial, I contributed several good ideas with how to approach the task. Each time, the senior attorney would look at me as exclaim, “Leskin ... not just a pretty face!” After several days of this, I finally turned to the attorney and calmly asked, with a smile on my face, “Is that why I was hired, or was it because I graduated second in my class?” He got the message, and the comments stopped.
Looking back at this event 20-plus years later, I see this incident as a good lesson in perception. I could have raised a fuss, taken exception and screamed sexism. But I know there was no malice intended, and the attorney and I continue to have a very strong working relationship. The key lesson learned is the ability to take the step back and not let an incident escalate. A professional, non-inflammatory response made it clear that I wasn’t amused by his comments.
Q: What advice would you give to an aspiring female attorney?
A: Don’t let yourself be relegated to the “woman’s” role on a case. You shouldn’t be the one relegated to taking notes while male associates at your same level are taking the depositions.
Don’t be an enabler. Don’t allow men (or women) to get away with sexist comments, or to downplay your role. Use the opportunity to educate colleagues as to your abilities and to the (likely)unintended implication of their words and actions.
Don’t escalate. Some people make dumb remarks, and sometimes they are unintentionally — and unwittingly — sexist. Take a deep breath and maintain your professionalism, but address the situation.
Work hard. In today’s legal environment, every attorney needs to work hard and prove their abilities.
“Don‟t let yourself be relegated to the „woman‟s‟ role on a case. You shouldn‟t be the one relegated to taking notes while male associates at your same level are taking the depositions.”
Q: What advice would you give to a law firm looking to increase the number of women in its partner ranks?
A: Senior attorneys have to identify promising young attorneys early on, and work to develop a strong mentoring and supporting relationship with them. All attorneys, men and women, want to feel wanted at the firm. They want to know that their contributions are valued and that their advancement as attorneys is important to the firm. Tokenism doesn’t work — women attorneys are not necessarily the only ones, or the best ones, to develop this relationship with young women associates.
My strongest mentors and supporters were always men. When I left to go out on my first maternity leave as a midlevel associate, two senior, male, partners took me to lunch. They urged me to come back after my leave and told me that if I didn’t, it would be the firm’s loss. When I did come back, the firm worked with me to develop a flexible plan that allowed me to work full- time yet work at home two days a week. As a result of this effort, I felt wanted at the firm and have always returned the loyalty.
Q: Outside your firm, name an attorney you admire and tell us why.
A: The late Justice William J. Brennan Jr. I have always admired the way he stood up for those who were persecuted and underrepresented and gave them a much-needed voice in the justice system.
A version of this article originally appeared in Law360 on February 18, 2014.