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What’s Changed in the Legal Field for Women? What Still Needs to Change?

Becoming a partner in a law firm is a significant achievement for any attorney that signifies they have reached an advanced level of expertise, experience, and success. It also opens the door for the attorney to play a leadership role with opportunities to shape the firm’s future. 

Attaining the title of “partner” is a milestone that brings a higher level of professional prestige, authority, and compensation. It is also a milestone that, until recently, was typically accessible only to men.

“When I was a young practicing lawyer, there were very, very few women partners,” shares Michelle Foster, Managing Partner of Foster Group Legal Search. “At my first firm, there were lots of women associates, but there were no women partners. At my second firm, there was only one woman partner. By personally advocating strongly for myself, I was able to become the firm’s second woman partner.”

The Foster Group is a full-service legal recruiting firm that assists partners, counsels, and associates in finding exceptional placements. Top law firms and corporations also rely on The Foster Group’s decades of experience to assist them in finding legal talent that can provide excellent service to clients and support strategic growth.

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Partnership opportunities for women have increased

Michelle’s work as a top legal recruiter over the past 20 years has given her a front-row seat to the changes that have happened in the legal field. She highlights the growth in partnership opportunities for women as one of the most significant changes.

“There were some societal changes that assisted in bringing this about,” Michelle says, “but there were also some women who kicked the door down and proved they had every right to be there.”

Drew Foster, Managing Director at The Foster Group, also sees the rise of women partners as a significant change in the legal field and one that changed the industry for the better.

“We’ve heard over the years that the changes that followed as more women become partners were a welcomed adjustment,” Drew shares. “Women partners brought a new vantage point to the legal process. They brought a diversity of thought and experience that the clients they worked with came to appreciate.”

Mentoring opportunities for women have increased

Having access to mentoring is an extremely important component of any attorney’s career journey. Mentorships, which are often provided to new attorneys by those who have already achieved partnership level, provide the guidance and support needed to navigate the complex legal landscape. 

Mentors help pass on critical practical skills like case management, client communication, and courtroom tactics while providing attorneys with a role model who can offer emotional support. As the number of women partners has increased, so have the opportunities for women to find mentorship support.

“Today’s women attorneys can find mentors who understand what it takes to increase their value and advance to the partner level,” Michelle says. “Thankfully, many firms are focusing more on connecting women attorneys with those mentors because they have come to see that making that connection is a critical element of developing the talent in their firm.”

Still, Michelle believes the focus of mentorship can be improved to bring about more significant and beneficial change for women attorneys. “Business development is an essential element of any attorney’s career growth,” she explains, “and one that men typically have more opportunities for than women.”

Michelle sees mentoring in business development as something that can decrease the bias that now exists in the area of business development.

“The attorneys who control client relationships have the power in the firm, as well as greater capability for career growth,” Michelle explains. “Oftentimes, those advantageous relationships are handed down to an attorney by a mentor. Because there has been more mentoring of men in this space, they have retained the key relationships. Mentoring women to become the relationship attorney with clients is something that still needs to happen with more regularity.”

The path forward for women attorneys

Michelle and her team at The Foster Group encourage those they work with to take a long-term approach to career development. They get to know their clients and their career goals in a deep way, providing tailored advice on the steps necessary for securing top law firm career opportunities. For women attorneys, that advice will always involve a committed approach to obtaining business development skills.

“That which you focus on, you achieve,” Michelle says. “Women attorneys will benefit from developing muscles in business development, which only comes from focus. I advise every attorney I work with to spend time every day building relationships that can help with their business development.”

Michelle also encourages women attorneys to seek out mentors to help with their legal career advancement. “It’s very challenging to navigate on your own,” she says. “A mentor who knows all the key people and has practical experience with legal practices can be an invaluable career advocate. If you can find someone like that to take you under their wing, it can make all the difference.”