Career Development

The Power of Authentic Storytelling: The path to leadership for women in law is bumpy – better get going

Successful, powerful, dynamic leaders do not mysteriously appear in the C-suite fully formed as perfect leaders. Megan Belcher of ConAgra Foods encourages women lawyers to seek out the stories about the paths to leadership from those leaders – the struggles, risks, and triumphs – and use them as levers to transform their own development. Her remarks have been edited for length and style.

MCC: What is the current state of affairs for women and their path to leadership in the practice of law?

Belcher: I think it’s been challenging for many decades, and it remains challenging. Agnostic of practice venue, women still have not come close to reaching leadership roles in parity with men, despite entering law school in almost equal numbers. Whether it be at the equity partner level, or at the Fortune 500 general counsel level, women aren’t even cracking the 30 percent mark in representation. The pay gap similarly remains, with women making about 80 percent of what men in either firms or in-house venues make. Women are also leaving the practice of law in greater numbers, which is probably the most troubling trend, in my opinion.

All that being said, there’s never been a time in the practice of law when there has been more momentum behind supporting women in their practices, in their path to leadership and in building a community to empower one another. There are a tremendous number of leadership and development opportunities about which women in law can be excited.

MCC: What are the key barriers and derailers for women, not just in seeking leadership positions, but also in staying in the practice of law?

Belcher: From an infrastructure perspective, I believe the biggest barrier is the continued broad use of a “one shoe fits all” model of leadership in the practice of law. There has long been an iron-clad concept about the model for a successful lawyer, what a successful path to leadership looks like, and what the core competencies of that path to leadership are. It’s fairly inflexible and it’s outdated. Part of what’s going on now in the practice of law, and particularly in the focus on women’s development and leadership, is rejecting this “one shoe” model of leadership and evolving into a new, more inclusive model of leadership.

Separately, there’s often a misconception that when you see someone who’s very successful or very powerful in the practice of law, somehow they came out of a cocoon as a fully formed leader without any struggles on the way up. There isn’t always a culture of being transparent and vulnerable about those struggles on the path to leadership, and that’s something we need to change. We must give emerging leaders a peek behind the curtain so they know and understand what it takes to become a leader, and that it isn’t always about successes and winning. There are many bumps along the way. Authentic storytelling by those who have reached the top is essential in terms of changing the game for women in the practice of law.

Finally, looking at derailers on a more individual level, there is a tendency of women lawyers to sometimes make the personal decision to opt out of opportunities because they think they have to have the perfect set of skills for a role or opportunities. Women lawyers, in my experience, are often very hard on themselves. The underpinning belief of a need for “perfection” often drives us to take ourselves out of the game before we even try and get in, putting us at a tremendous disadvantage. Confidence is key, as is grit.

MCC: What are some of the initiatives to support women in the practice of law?

Belcher: There are any number of examples of organizations doing fantastic things on the national venue. For women who are still in law school, Ms. JD is doing interesting and innovative work to focus on women coming into the pipeline, both from an education and a support perspective. Separately, a development program for women in-house counsel, the Women’s In-House Counsel Leadership Institute has just launched and had its kickoff national conference in March, focusing on leadership and development for women in the in-house practice.

The Women, Influence & Power in Law network continues to bring focus on women in the law doing great things, and will host its annual WIPL Conference yet again this September. The Corporate Counsel Women of Color network and conference similarly offers fantastic development and educational opportunities for in-house women attorneys of color. Dentons’ Courageous Counsel conference is an example I always point to as a tremendously successful law firm women’s initiative that delivers incredible content at its annual leadership institute. The University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Women in Law is doing great things nationally and regionally, coming at the issue from an academic perspective. These are just a few examples of a number of nationally focused organizations who are trying to drive impact for women in law who aspire to lead.

In addition, there are several more focused programs trying to drive targeted impact. For example, Caren Ulrich Stacy started the OnRamp Fellowship to assist women in getting jobs in law firms or in-house departments after they took a hiatus from the practice of law. She’s partnering with law firms and in-house departments to place these women in roles and get them “on-ramped” back into their legal practices. She also recently announced a partnership with the Association of Corporate Counsel, and is separately running the Women in Law Hackathon, with teams of development mentors and sponsors working on initiatives to bring better diversity to their law firms or practices.

In short, there’s a tremendous amount going on in the space. However, at the end of the day, it is all about bringing the storytelling and conversation to the forefront, while delivering impactful resources to the women who are looking for them.

MCC: What gives an initiative the most impact?

Belcher: I think they all have a few key hallmarks. First, they have a deliberate focus on authentic storytelling. Second, they give women actionable development tools that they can take back to their organizations. Third, they offer the ability to build impactful and strategic relationships. Fourth, they cultivate tangible leadership skills while dispelling the myths that you have to fit within a single style of practice or leadership. And finally, they each recognize the realities of the practice of law, while also keeping account for the many hats that women wear.

MCC: Why do you think there’s so much momentum behind programs supporting women in their practices and in their journeys to leadership right now?

Belcher: Holistically, when you think about women in business, there’s been a great deal of focus on women’s empowerment over the last three to five years. Lean In was a watershed moment that furthered the conversation in a lot of industries. The book resonated with so many of us who were of that first generation who had mothers who worked outside the home, and who had dreams for their daughters’ careers. Lawyers are a population interested in pushing boundaries and making it happen, so I felt like principles and inertia behind the “Lean In” movement and its progeny caught like wildfire, particularly as the legal industry took its cues from the business world. In addition, we are now standing on the shoulders of women who came one and even two generations behind us, like the first woman general counsel in the Fortune 500, Mary Ann Hynes, who made tremendous strides forward for women in the practice of law and continue to authentically tell their stories.

MCC: Are there any unmet needs despite the momentum?

Belcher: When you think about talent management, as well as development and leadership opportunities, there are definitely haves and have-nots in the world. You might be at an organization or a law firm that has a chief talent officer and a really robust talent management system, but those types of resources can be few and far between. In addition, not every organization can always see or believe in the value of that kind of development.

To that end, where there is truly an unmet need is for widespread, community-based leadership and development opportunities in women’s own communities. If we truly want to change the game for women in the practice of law, we need opportunities for critical skill development for lawyers aspiring to lead, which has a low cost of entry and is easily accessible. While also providing opportunities, those communities can enable women to build a powerful local network that they can leverage for growth, development and business generation.

MCC: The power of storytelling has come up several times. Why do you think women telling their stories has such a great impact?

Belcher: There is tremendous power in knowing that you’re not the only person who has fought a battle, has been uncomfortable in your career, or has been puzzled by direction or path. Having very successful lawyers acknowledge that the process can sometimes be messy and uncomfortable drives greater courage and grit in those who are still on the path. In addition, as they share the strategies they used to move forward, and what they did to prevail during challenging times, they offer options and insights to those looking for solutions.

MCC: How have you been inspired by this movement?

Belcher: Personally, I’ve been inspired to spend time thinking about my development and where I want my career path to take me. Over the last five years, I have had the opportunity to participate in a number of leadership and development programs, both internally and externally. Those opportunities have transformed my career and have continued to shape my development plan.

On a broader scale, I’ve been inspired to bring the lessons from the opportunities I have had to women in my community by starting a group in Omaha in 2014 called Drinks Among Friends. We are a group of women lawyers focused on crowdsourcing our resources in furtherance of offering low-cost or free leadership and development opportunities for women lawyers. At the same time, we place a tremendous focus on storytelling and building relationships. DAF resonated so well with the women in Omaha, we started chapters in Kansas City and Minneapolis, and will be expanding to Portland, Oregon; Boston; and Austin, Texas, this year. We will continue to look for communities where we can provide accessible opportunities to women lawyers aspiring to lead, and where there are no other organizations already meeting that need.

MCC: What should women individually be putting on their development plans for 2016?

Belcher: If you’re talking specifically about empowering women in the practice of law, just make a commitment to help another woman with her development. Be her sponsor, sit on her personal board of directors, open up your network to her, understand how she’s thinking about her development and how you can support her. We’re all interested in being successful, and we can do that a lot more powerfully together than individually. I truly believe helping someone else is one of the most powerful things you can do in furtherance of your own development.

MCC: If you had one piece of advice for women aspiring to lead in the practice of law, what would it be?

Belcher: Make the commitment to yourself to make something happen. You will never make a safer investment than an investment in your own development, so make the commitment to do just one thing in furtherance of your aspirations. Spend time putting together a development plan. Thoughtfully craft how you want your personal brand to evolve over the next year. Build a strategic personal board of directors who can help drive you forward on the path. Regardless of how you decide to invest your development time, don’t be afraid to take smart risks. If you’re not uncomfortable, you’re not growing.

MCC: What can we at Metropolitan Corporate Counsel or other organizations do to help support women in the practice of law?

Belcher: You can continue to bring visibility to the achievements of women in the practice of law. I would love to see you featuring women who are leading, not just in their technical practices, but also as leaders in their organizations or in their legal communities. Shining the spotlight on women who are transforming their organizations and the practice as a whole, and supporting lawyers who are beginning their path to leadership holds incredibly powerful messaging for the larger community of women aspiring to rise. In short, just keep up the great work you’re already doing.

Megan Belcher is vice president and chief counsel – employment law and compliance at ConAgra Foods. She can be reached at [email protected].

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