Lean In for Lawyers

Leigh King Forstman presented a CLE for the Women Lawyers Section of the Birmingham Bar Association on August 30, 2017.  Fellow panelists included the Honorable Brendette Brown-Green of the Tenth Judicial Circuit, Allison Skinner of Cadence Bank, and Robin Mark of the U. S. Attorneys Office Northern District.



CLE Materials prepared by Leigh King Forstman


Professional women are called to action by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg in her 2013 book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. By analyzing the stagnation of women’s progress in leadership roles, despite parity in educational performance, Sandberg outlines a blueprint for building a satisfying career. Let’s be honest. Women lawyers are cerebral, committed to their clients and causes, and proven experts at multi-tasking their professional, personal and philanthropic roles. Such high levels of performance are riddled with internal and external challenges. We will dissect issues of courtroom demeanor, negotiation tactics, emotional intelligence, law firm ascension, networking, mentoring and brass rings. Women lawyers are problem solvers. It’s time to work on solutions for our progress in the legal profession.


Statistically speaking, Sandberg conveys the blunt truth that men still run the world, whether the platform is global leadership or the American workplace. Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead (2013). In the 1980s, women became 50 percent of the college graduates in the United States. Id. at 5. Currently, women earn about 57 percent of the undergraduate and 60 percent of the master’s degrees in the United States. Id. at 15. This educational advantage has yet to translate to significant gains in corporate America, where women comprise roughly 14 percent of executive officer positions, 17 percent of board seats, and 18 percent of elected congressional officials. Id. at 5. A 2012 McKinsey survey of over 4000 employees of leading companies revealed that 36 percent of the men wanted to reach the C-suite, double the 18 percent of the women seeking a C-suite job. Id. at 16. The leadership ambition gap is apparent. Compensation also lags behind. American women were paid 59 cents for every dollar their male counterparts made. By 2010, women earned 77 cents for every dollar men made. Id. at 6. As Sandburg opined, women have to prove themselves to a far greater extent than men do. According to a 2011 McKinsey report, men are promoted based on potential; whereas, women are promoted based on past accomplishments. Id. at 28.


The work/life balance challenge is alive and well. Sandberg quotes Ellen Bravo, director of the Family Values @ Work consortium: “Women are not thinking about ‘having it all,’ they’re worried about losing it all— their jobs, their children’s health, their families’ financial stability— because of the regular conflicts that arise between being a good employee and a responsible parent.” Id. at 23. For men, having a successful professional life and a fulfilling personal life is within reach. To the contrary, many women are conditioned that trying to do both is difficult at best and impossible at worst.


Sandberg delivered the commencement address in 2011 at Barnard College, an all-women’s liberal arts school in New York City. Here is her call to action:

You are the promise for a more equal world. So my hope for everyone here is that after you walk across this stage, after you get your diploma, after you go out tonight and celebrate hard— you then will lean way in to your career. You will find something you love doing and you will do it with gusto. Find the right career for you and go all the way to the top.

As you walk off the stage today, you start your adult life. Start out by aiming high. Try— and try hard.

Like everyone here, I have great hopes for the members of this graduating class. I hope you find true meaning, contentment, and passion in your life. I hope you navigate the difficult times and come out with greater strength and resolve. I hope you find whatever balance you seek with your eyes wide open. And I hope that you— yes, you— have the ambition to lean in to your career and run the world. Because the world needs you to change it. Women all around the world are counting on you.

So please ask yourself: What would I do if I weren’t afraid? And then go do it.

Id. at 25-26.


An oft-recounted story from Sandberg’s book involves a meeting she hosted at Facebook for Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner. Fifteen executives from across Silicon Valley were invited for breakfast and a discussion about the economy. Secretary Geithner brought four members of his staff. Sandberg encouraged those in attendance to help themselves to the buffet and take a seat. The invited guests were mostly men. Apparently, they served their plates and sat down at the large conference table. Secretary Geithner’s staff were all women. They took their food last and sat in chairs off to the side of the room. Sandberg motioned for the women to come sit at the table. She even waved them over so they would feel welcomed. They, however, remained in their seats. Sandberg observed that, the women, who had every right to be at the meeting, seemed like spectators rather than participants. She explained to the women that they should have sat at the table even without an invitation, but when publicly welcomed, they most certainly should have joined. Id. at 27-28. This was a watershed moment for Sandberg, who then recognized that women face battles from within, as well as institutional obstacles.


One battleground, in particular, is self-evaluation. As women, we consistently underestimate ourselves, by judging our own performance as worse than it actually is. Men, on the other hand, judge their own performance as better than it actually is. A study of nearly 1000 Harvard Law students revealed that in almost every category of skills relevant to practicing law, women gave themselves lower scores than men. Id. at 29-30. This underestimation phenomenon can become exaggerated when women evaluate themselves in front of other people or in stereotypically male domains. Id. Earlier in her career, Sandberg worked for Larry Summers, then chief economist at the World Bank. Summers was married to a tax attorney. He urged his attorney wife to “bill like a boy.” His justification was that men considered any time they spent thinking about an issue– even time in the shower— as billable hours. Id. at 36-37. This was in stark contrast to his wife and her female colleagues who would discount hours they spent at their desks to be fair to the client if they were not at their best on a given day. The question then became: Which lawyers were more valuable to the firm? Id.


Turning attention outward, external factors present challenges. Sandberg explained that “success and likeability” are positively correlated for men and are negatively correlated for women: “When a man is successful, he is liked by both men and women. When a woman is successful, people of both genders like her less.” Id. at 40. People evaluate other people based on stereotypes. For instance, men are stereotyped as providers, decisive, and driven. Stereotypes for women include caregivers, sensitive, and communal. Given these stereotypes, professional achievement gets placed in the male column. Id. Exhibit A, so to speak, was a 2003 experiment to test perceptions of men and women in the workplace. The experiment was based on a Harvard Business School case study about a real life entrepreneur named Heidi Roizen. Id. at 39. Roizen was a successful venture capitalist who used her “outgoing personality…and vast personal and professional network [that] included many of the most powerful business leaders in the technology sector.” Id. Half of the students read Heidi’s story. The other half of the students were given the same story, but Heidi’s name was changed to Howard. Even with similar competencies and accomplishments, Howard was more highly regarded then Heidi. Thus, the same data with only a change in gender yielded markedly different impressions.


When it comes to negotiating, the Heidi/Howard paradigm is ever present. Men can advocate on their own behalf. This meets society’s expectations. Women are not expected to advocate on their own behalf; instead, women are expected to be concerned with others. Therefore, Sandberg illustrates that, if they advocate for themselves or point to their own value, both men and women react unfavorably because they appear self-serving. Id. at 45. Per Sandberg, the goal of a successful negotiation is to achieve our objective and continue to have people like us. Professor Hannah Riley Bowles at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government studies gender and negotiations. She believes that women must, first, come across as being nice, concerned about others, and appropriately female, and, second, provide a legitimate explanation for the negotiation. Id. at 47. Sandberg advises women to preface negotiations by positioning themselves as connected to a group, not just out for themselves. In other words, they are negotiating for all women. The pronoun “we” should be substituted for “I” whenever possible. Women, unlike men, must justify their request. Women should combine niceness with insistence. Sue Coleman, president of University of Michigan, calls this style “relentlessly pleasant.”  Id. at 48. This method espouses “smiling frequently, expressing appreciation and concern, invoking common interests, emphasizing the larger goals, and approaching the negotiation as solving a problem as opposed to taking a critical stance.” Id.


One of the best visuals to arise from Lean In is the metaphor, coined by Pattie Sellers: “Careers are a jungle gym, not a ladder.” Id. at 53. Think about it. The trajectory of ladders is either up or down. The top of a jungle gym can be reached in many ways. The jungle gym model particularly describes women who are “starting careers, switching careers, getting blocked by external barriers, or reentering the workforce after taking time off.” Id. Sandberg recommends adopting two concurrent goals, a long-term dream and an eighteen-month plan. The first of these goals need not be realistic or even specific; the second goal is ideal for setting personal goals for learning new skills. As demonstrated by an internal report at Hewlett-Packard, women only apply for open jobs if they think they meet 100 percent of the criteria, compared to men who apply if they think they meet 60 percent of the requirements. Id. at 62. The founders of Negotiating Women, Inc., Carol Frohlinger and Deborah Kolb, use the term “Tiara Syndrome” to describe the concept where women “expect that if they keep doing their job well someone will notice them and place a tiara on their head.” Id. at 63. Sandberg sums it up by saying, “In a perfect meritocracy, tiaras would be doled out to the deserving, but I have yet to see one floating around an office…And anyway, who wears a tiara on a jungle gym?” Id.

According to Sandberg, no one has it all, nor can we:

The very concept of having it all flies in the face of the basic laws of economics and common sense. As Sharon Poctzer, professor of economics at Cornell, explains, “The antiquated rhetoric of ‘having it all’ disregards the basis of every economic relationship: the idea of trade-offs. All of us are dealing with the constrained optimization that is life, attempting to maximize our utility based on parameters like career, kids, relationships, etc., doing our best to allocate the resource of time. Due to the scarcity of this resource, therefore, none of us can ‘have it all,’ and those who claim to are most likely lying.”

Id. at 121.


Recognizing that “having it all” is a myth, Sandberg encourages women to let go of the need for perfection: “Trying to do it all and expecting that it all can be done exactly right is a recipe for disappointment. Perfection is the enemy.” Id. at 123. There is a poster at Facebook, which declares, “Done is better than perfect.” Getting it done avoids the perils of frustration and paralysis from aiming for perfection. Plus, it is far more achievable and often a relief. Id. at 125.


Combining work and parenthood can put women on the defensive. Out of fear, women carefully protect their appearances so as not to put their families above their careers. By comparison with men or women without family responsibilities, mothers do not want to be perceived as less dedicated to their jobs. Simply stated by Sandberg, “We overwork to overcompensate.” Id. at 129. Technology may have liberated us from the physical office, allowing us 24/7 access, but it also extends the workday. This new normal causes us to steal hours where we can, often by depriving ourselves of sleep. As we seek to “intensively mother,” we have to manage guilt, as well as time. Sandberg encourages women to ask the right question, “Can I do what’s most important for me and my family?”, rather than “Can I do it all?” Being authentic and sharing the truth with others on the same path helps.


Fight to be the noun, not the adjective. How many times are the positions of women in power qualified— a female pilot, a female engineer, a female CEO, a female race car driver, a female lawyer? Men in the professional world are not seen through the same lens. According to Gloria Steinem, “whoever has power takes over the noun— and the norm— while the less powerful get an adjective.” Id. at 140. When feminism is specifically defined as “someone who believes in social, political and economic quality of the sexes,” the percentage of women who agree rises to 65 percent. When women are simply asked whether they are feminists, only 24 percent consider themselves feminists. Id. at 158. Speaking up about the impact of gender is vital. Sandberg summarizes that, the “result of creating a more equal environment will not just be better performance for our organizations, but quite likely greater happiness for all.” Id.

Classic Sandberg: “I believe that if more women lean in, we can change the power structure of our world and expand opportunities for all.” Id. at 171.