Attorney Spotlight: Women in Leadership Roundtable

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Women in Leadership Roundtable: Tiffany deGruy, Dawn Sharff, Lela Hollabaugh, Emily Bowman, Margaret Cupples and Leigh Anne Hodge(Pictured from left to right: Tiffany deGruy (Head of Bradley Winn Initiative; Moderator), Dawn Sharff (Birmingham Office Managing Partner), Lela Hollabaugh (Nashville Office Managing Partner), Emily Bowman (Real Estate, Finance and Banking Practice Group Leader), Margaret Cupples (Jackson Office Managing Partner), Leigh Anne Hodge (General Litigation Practice Group Leader)) 

Tiffany: What advice do you have for women who might be aiming for leadership positions? 

Dawn: Advice I would give to women aiming for leadership positions is to raise your hand, get involved. Don't be afraid to volunteer for things. Don't wait to be asked to do things. Find something that interests you, that's going to help you learn about the organization better, and volunteer. 

Lela: I agree completely. I think that you have to step up, do the work, and have your voice heard. 

Emily: I would only add to that, that women have a strength, I believe, when it comes to people skills and organizational skills, as a gross generalization. And those two characteristics will help women in their quest for leadership. And echoing the need to speak up, also don't let other people take credit for your ideas.

Tiffany: Following up on that, I think some younger women that may be looking for leadership positions later in their career or are ready to step up into leadership, may feel like they have trouble getting these prominent roles in the organization. Do you have any strategies to help women achieve a more prominent role in their organization? 

Emily: I'd say don't be afraid to start at the bottom. Just like in any industry that you're in. You know, start out as the dishwasher, work your way up to server, work your way up to restaurant owner. The same thing applies in a law firm. If you volunteer for one committee and you do a great job, you'll get on another committee and it rolls on from there.

Lela: One other thought that I had is to work on really building your relationships within the law firm. Also, assume leadership roles outside the law firm so that people internally see that those outside the firm trust you in leadership positions. You can receive a lot of different training and skills in external leadership roles.

Dawn: I just want to add that I think identifying a mentor or mentors early on, whether that's a male or a female, is critical. Somebody that has already been there and done that, and can sort of help you find your place for leadership. 

Tiffany: What do you think are some barriers to female leadership? Or leadership in general?

Lela: The biggest one that I can identify for women is simply time. There's only so many hours in the day and as you take on those additional leadership responsibilities, something has to give, either at home or in work. And I think that's the biggest barrier -- women just oftentimes don't want to take on that extra workload. Or they're asked too frequently to take it on, and other parts of their lives suffer.

Dawn: Thanks to lots of female leaders who came before me and before all of us, female leadership roles are way more accepted now than they were decades ago. Frankly, I think self-doubt is still a barrier for a lot of women. There are still women who are not quite ready to volunteer or jump in because they're not sure they're going to be great at it. And I think that men don't have that sort of mentality as often as women do. So women can hold themselves back. That's why I think mentoring and having a support system of people saying, “You’ll be awesome at this, so don't doubt for a minute that you won't be awesome at this, and go for it" is so important.

Emily: I agree with that. I would say women sometimes have trouble trusting their own voice and trusting that they can speak up with authority and be respected, whether or not that is the case. And just by making some little changes, even by changing your word choice, instead of standing up and saying, “I think” or “I believe,” being more assertive in conversations is one little thing that women can do.

Margaret: There's one thing that kind of plays into your question that you mentioned about issues that will be particular to the new generation of women lawyers. And I think this comes out of the Me Too Movement a little bit. There's a sort of hesitation now for some of our older partners, male partners, to take a woman associate with them on a deposition out of town or something like that, because they're a little worried about that perception. I know that most of us who are in leadership positions in the firm now are people who had men as our mentors, and would not have learned to be good lawyers without that mentoring. And I worry that in this climate it's going to be harder for women to get that kind of mentoring from men. Because there's this kind of suspicion about what's going on if a guy goes out of town with a woman, or goes to a client dinner, or something like that. I think that's going to be something that we need to keep an eye on. And I wish there were more of us women who could do that for our younger associates. But I think we still have to hope that our men are going to be mentors for them.

Tiffany: What are some other challenges in the legal profession that you see for the generation of women behind you? 

Dawn: I would say the challenge of demanding hours and the slog to try to make partner. That is always going to be a challenge. It's a challenge for men, too, but I feel for women who are often trying to also balance family things, it can seem harder. But it also occurred to me when I was thinking about that question, that frankly, it is a plus that we're in a law firm, because our profession does allow some flexibility that other professions don’t. It is pretty accommodating for us to work from home when we've got a sick child, and there are a lot of professional women who don't have that luxury, who are working in companies that don't offer as much flexibility.

Tiffany: A lot of this moving up in leadership within a law firm or a company has to do with how you navigate the power structure within your company. Do you have any advice for how women should try to navigate the power structures within their organization?

Dawn: I'm probably repeating myself a little bit, but finding people who are in leadership positions is important. And again, being a leader doesn't mean “I am the chair of this committee.” Leadership looks different for different people. Finding someone, generally someone that is probably going to be a little older than you, who you can just learn from. I mean, that was totally what I did when I started practicing law. I was really blessed that my mentor was a female who was married to a lawyer and had four children and had done all the things that I was hoping I would be able to do 15 or 20 years later. But having her as a resource and a support system and somebody that I could go to when I had questions about how things worked at the firm, was invaluable. And again, it doesn't have to be a female. I was fortunate that mine was, but there are plenty of men that can play that role and would enjoy playing that role, as well.

Emily: I would add to that, in addition to having a mentor, developing relationships as Lela said, and finding a sponsor within the firm, distinguishable from a mentor, is really important. So that you have that partner or person in leadership who is really promoting you within the firm and to the board or other people in positions of authority, to talk about your successes and your wins, and to make sure that your name is out there is really important.

Tiffany: And jumping off a point that Dawn just made, she mentioned that leadership may look different at different places in your career, and it might not always be the managing partner or somebody who's seen in the general community as a leader. How would you encourage young women to develop their leadership skills in the place they are, even if they're a first year lawyer or somebody who is recently out of college and on the marketing team? How do you develop leadership skills so that one day you'll be able to be in the position that some of you are in now?

Margaret: I think you just need to volunteer. There are so many organizations out there that need people to do something, and whether it's your neighborhood association or the Junior League or a nonprofit that you're working with or the firm, if you make yourself available for some kind of job that nobody else wants you can start to make a difference. Maybe it’s the newsletter or being the committee chair for some committee in a local bar association. That gets your foot in the door and it gets you in your first position that you can use as a building block to develop some skills that will be helpful in your law practice. 

Lela: I'll echo everything Margaret just said, it’s that you, no matter where you are in your career, you have to volunteer. Say that you're interested in doing something and then do it to the very best of your ability. And volunteering at the bar association, your local nonprofits, are just great places to begin to develop those skills where you are learning what it takes to build consensus among different opinions and move an organization forward.

Tiffany: Are there any observations about challenges women face that might be specific to the legal industry?

Lela: I've thought about that question particularly, and I'm really not sure that the issues are specific to the legal profession. I mean, candidly, I've never worked in another profession, so I don't know that the issues are any different. If there were one, the first thing that came to my mind is the lack of natural relationships with potential decision-makers at the clients or people that you want to be clients, or entities that you want to be clients. Meaning that the network of women who control the business that lawyers want is very small, and unlike the men who may have a natural male business network, I don't think the women have that. And I think it's going to be a long time before women ever have that, if that playing field ever becomes level.

Emily: A different kind of challenge that women face, and this is not particular just to women, but to anybody in a service industry, is the lack of control over your own schedule. I read an article recently about how a lot of people in their 40s are sandwiched between taking care of small children and taking care of aging parents. And that called to me specifically. I was able to relate to that as a professional with children at home. And when you have a lot of demands pulling you in different directions, and you have this career where you need to treat every single client like they're your most important client, it can become very difficult to have balance or to have any semblance of a regular schedule. That's difficult.

Tiffany: Throughout this conversation, we've talked about some challenges that face women who might be aspiring for a leadership position. Can you comment on some ways that you have found in your career that are helpful to combat some of those challenges? We’ve talked about the unpredictability of your schedule, the lack of time to devote to leadership activities, or the inner voice and the self-doubt of proving yourself, or even the external forces of others thinking that you really can't take on leadership roles. What are some strategies that you have found helpful in trying to get over these barriers?

Margaret: It's helpful to sort of lean on other women who you see in this community. Not just lawyers, maybe, but certainly other lawyers at other firms, or local judges who are lawyers. One of our local judges is excellent at cultivating women lawyers who appear in front of her, and she'll make a point of telling the partner on the file that the associate on the file did a great job on an argument in front of the client, or boosting our younger women in their ability to feel confident that they've done a good job with something in front of this judge. And that also translates back to the partner and the client that the judge likes to see them do arguments. And so now you'll hear a partner saying, “Oh, we should send a female associate over there to argue that motion instead of a male partner, because this judge really responds to that.” And I think that kind of thing can be helpful, if you can cultivate a network of women who are judges or lawyers at other firms who can be helpful. This community is small enough that that works really well. I'm not sure if that's true in larger markets, but around here I think the fact that people know each other and that people are willing to help each other and are very collegial is a real effective tool to grow as a lawyer.

Lela: One thing I think that is really helpful in overcoming some of these obstacles or challenges as a lawyer is just being true to yourself. Being who you are. Be who you are with your fellow lawyers in the office, with the staff, with your clients, because when you are who you are, you can have conversations with them about having a conflict and you have to be elsewhere or maybe it's a personal matter you need to tend to. But your clients understand that you have a life, too and that when you tell them you've got a conflict it really means you have a conflict. You're not pushing them off to the side, because they know you well enough to know that you don't do that. They know that you have them taken care of, but on this occasion you've got a conflict. That's part of this communication, relationship building, but understanding that you can do that and as long as you're true to yourself, you're not making it up. You're not exaggerating it. And all of those people will help you when you face these challenges.

Emily: That's a great point. I think that's something that can be unique to women. I deal with a lot of female in-house counsel and have had a lot of conversations with them about the same kinds of things that happen in their lives that are happening in our lives, and they understand. And if you can be pretty honest about that, on both sides, then they get it. When you tell them you can't get to something today, but you'll do it tomorrow, then that seems to work.

Tiffany: How do women build resiliency skills, and maintain a sense of empowerment in their workplace? Sometimes outside circumstances may happen that will tend to disrupt you or interrupt your goals and leadership. What are some ways that you have found to stay on track and build that resiliency?

Dawn: First of all, I think you build resiliency skills by just keeping at it. You just keep at it.  Because that's what you're supposed to do and even when you have days that aren't so great, you tell yourself you're going to keep going because everybody has days that aren't so great. But I know the times when I have been most stressed about  work-related matters, including leadership challenges, I have really found -- I know I keep saying this -- the support system thing is so important. Because if you're leading alone, then you're doing something terribly wrong. If you're leading the right way, you have lots of people who are helping you lead, and should be supporting you. Just like you're supporting them. Because it's a team, and I just get so much out of it. It keeps me going when I know there are folks that are rooting for me and wanting me to be successful and wanting the enterprise to be successful. So I just think support system, support system, support system. And that doesn't have to be just an internal thing. That can be people in the community, peers that are in other types of professions, family members, spouses, whoever it is. But have a support net. 

Tiffany: If you could go back in time to talk to your younger self when you were just entering the job market, or just starting out on your career path, what advice would you give to yourself that may have helped propel your leadership?

Emily: I would say, go back and try to take things more in stride, and don't worry so much about how to get to a particular point in the future because if you do the best job that you can do every day and you try not to disappoint the people you're working with and working for, it will all happen organically. And your career will take off on an upward path from there. 

Margaret: That was pretty perfect. I don't have anything better to say than that.

Dawn: Yeah, I would say don't try to be perfect. That's what I would have told myself.

Lela: I think one thing I would add, that I would say, is don't start your career with an "us-versus-them" mentality. That you always say, “Oh, well the firm has done X, Y, and Z.” Well, you're a part of the firm. So don't think about it as an "us-versus-them." Think about it as a "we," and “we” should consider doing something differently if you don't happen to like the decision that was made. But don't come in with an "us-versus-them" mentality.

Question: Define a great leader. What are some traits you think great leaders possess?

Dawn: A great leader is someone who inspires everyone in the organization to want to work together and collaborate to make it a better place. A great leader must be a listener, she must be open-minded, she must be willing to put the best interests of the organization ahead of her personal interests, and she must value every member of the team (and make them feel that they are valued).

Emily: A great leader needs to engage in active listening, make difficult decisions when necessary, and motivate team members. In a law firm, a great leader will help attorneys in a practice group identify goals and then motivate the group to coordinate and work collectively to achieve success.

Lela: I think great leaders are compassionate, humble and able to communicate with their stakeholders. Of course, there are many other traits but these seem to rise to the top.

Margaret: The ability to see things from the 30,000-foot level, to listen, and to work as part of a team, not separately from it.

Leigh Anne: A leader is someone who:

  • Who listens more than he or she speaks.
  • Has an open mind and encourages thinking “outside the box.”
  • Acts for the benefit of all, rather than promoting his or her personal agenda.
  • Works to promote and encourage the personal and professional development of each and every person on the team.
  • With input and buy-in from the team, facilitates execution of the team’s agreed-upon goals.

Question: What event motivated you to become a leader?

Dawn: Most leaders probably instinctively have a desire to lead in some way (and a desire that begins way before there’s a career). But being a female provided additional motivation for me personally once I was settled into my career because I have so much respect for the female leaders who created opportunities for me and feel an obligation to build on the many things they have accomplished for women. 

Emily: Ha – a friend, mentor, and senior partner asked, and I couldn't say no.

Lela: I never consciously sought to be a leader. I have always tried to be engaged and provide ideas to better whatever organization I was working with and that seems to have translated into leadership positions.

Margaret: I think most of my leadership background is from college; I was lucky enough to go to a small liberal arts school with professors and staff who encouraged me to step up in several areas and provided training and support for me and other students.

Leigh Anne: There is no one event that motivated me to become a leader. It just happened naturally with time and experience.

Question: What motivates you as a leader?

Dawn: I’m motivated by praise and encouragement from my colleagues but also by their constructive criticism -- both make me want to keep pushing myself and focusing on ways to improve. I also love where I work and am motivated to do whatever I can to retain the excellence we’ve already achieved and make the firm an even better place for everyone who works here and for the clients and communities we serve.

Emily: The success of my team.

Lela: Helping others succeed and improving the organization or community motivates me.

Leigh Anne: I am motivated most by being involved in the personal and professional development of junior (usually younger) attorneys. Nothing is more satisfying than watching an associate’s development over a period of years, and then seeing that associate cross over into the partnership ranks.

Margaret: Care for the organizations that I lead and the people who are part of them.

Question: What woman inspires you and why?

Dawn: There are so many! But Kay Bains is the woman who has most inspired me. She was my boss, my mentor and my sponsor for the first phase of my career, and since then she has been one of my closest friends and confidantes. I am so fortunate that I had a role model like Kay in my life for so many years, and now that she has retired to do all sorts of awesome things, I treasure our regular weekend walks together.

Emily: My grandmother has always inspired me. She immigrated to this country as a young woman from New Zealand, with a master's degree and as an assistant to the Prime Minister of New Zealand. After making her way circuitously from D.C. to Tennessee, she built the first computerized business in her industry in the Southeast. She was a fearless leader, a shrewd businesswoman, always had time for family and above all, was kind.   

Lela: Dolly Parton without question. She is a trailblazer, successful business woman, humble, funny and has given back to her community hundred-fold by providing opportunities for education and jobs to those who might not have had those opportunities. 

Margaret: My mother, who is an amazing person who never quits and who always believes in me (and I think we all want to make mama proud, right?).

Leigh Anne: The source of my inspiration is not limited to just one woman. And the source of my inspiration is not someone famous. I am most inspired by the women in my everyday life, both at work and in my personal life. I am inspired by Dawn Sharff’s leadership. At the Board’s request, she rose to the challenge, assumed the role as acting managing partner of the firm, and led us through the transition to a new managing partner. I am inspired by watching women associates with whom I have worked take their first deposition or argue their first motion for summary judgment. I am inspired by all of the single mothers with whom I have worked, who have juggled work and home and sick children and deadlines. I am inspired by my dearest friends who single handedly raised their children to become amazing young adults. I am inspired by my friends and colleagues who have fought and currently are fighting breast cancer with grace and quiet determination. I am inspired by my daughter, who assertively and confidently questioned doctors and caregivers at Boston Children’s Hospital about her newborn daughter’s plan of care. All of these women are extraordinary examples of strength and resilience.

Question: What is one key leadership lesson you’ve learned along the way?

Dawn: Find a support system -- if one doesn’t happen organically for you, then create one for yourself. The thing that I have come to appreciate the most about Bradley is the many people (lawyers and non-lawyers, male and female) who support me when I’m struggling and celebrate when I’ve done something well.

Emily: Strive to strike a balance between humility and overt displays of your competence or expertise. In other words, don't be a shrinking violet in the boardroom, but take care not to overestimate your competence.

Lela: Everyone is trying to do their best and a leader is great at bringing out the best in people.

Margaret: Be willing to put yourself out there, even when you’re not sure you have the skill set that someone is looking for – you may surprise yourself.

Leigh Anne: A leader’s ultimate goal should be to make each and every team member look good, rather than making themselves look good.